Enjoy every sandwich

By now it has been a few days short of a year since the first coronavirus restrictions were put in place across the UK, and depending on who one talks to it either ‘feels like yesterday’ since lockdown was originally announced on 23 March 2020 or it is as though this entire situation has been dragging on for years.  Days, weeks and months have blended into a single huge block, like the puddle that forms by the side of the pavement on George Street across from WH Smith on rainy days and is near-impossible to walk beyond without being sprayed by a passing vehicle.  You know it’s there and that you’re going to have to do something about it, but in the end, what does it really matter if you get soaked when there’s nowhere else to go but home?  I felt about Tuesdays and Wednesdays, February and March the same way I felt about that damn puddle.

Reading through old entries in my notebook from the time was almost as surreal as living through it.  Now that we have almost become accustomed to wearing face coverings wherever we go, social distancing, and pubs and restaurants either being severely limited in how they can operate or at times being closed entirely, it is incredible to remember that there was a time when everybody believed that the best way to combat an airborne virus was to stock up on as much toilet roll and pasta as we could fit in our cupboards and to wash our hands whilst singing God Save The Queen.  The latter was official advice from the UK government, and I still haven’t used the tin of chickpeas I had bought that first weekend in a blind panic because the rest of the shelves had been emptied.  At a time when some countries had closed their borders to international travellers, I was standing at the urinal in Aulay’s listening to a fellow drunk espouse his theory about how you can tell the quality of the lager in a pub from how wet the bathroom floor is.  His claim was that the more fluid there is to be seen on the floor of a pub’s toilet, the better the beer is because it proves that people are drinking a lot of it.  There wasn’t much opportunity to put the idea to the test before the lockdown eventually came, though it was clear that some puddles are to be avoided more than others.

In the week that the Scottish government revealed further details outlining its ‘roadmap’ out of the current set of lockdown restrictions that have been in effect since 26 December, Oban has enjoyed some brilliant early spring sun that started earlier and stretched later into the day than had been seen for some time.  Some days the temperature even threatened to reach the low-teens, which was reason enough for me to walk around town with my coat opened.  Nothing marks the changing of the seasons better than the first day of the year where it’s mild enough to unbutton your coat.  The weather was a welcome break from the grey and dreary period of rain we had recently been enduring, when at times the stuff seemed to be falling vertically and horizontally at the same time, and it didn’t matter how tightly your coat was buttoned because it would still find a way in.  Hailstones the size of fish food pellets lashed off the ground, and while it isn’t for me to suggest that Mother Nature was showing any kind of preference in the field of Scottish football, it was fairly compelling that the bad weather struck within hours of Rangers winning the Scottish Premier League title.

Like many Celtic fans, I had been resigned to the idea that the team would lose the championship since around October time, and even the most optimistic knew by the turn of the year that Rangers were on course to win it.  That gave me plenty of time to prepare myself for the inevitable sight of triumphant bluenoses in the spring, and when it came I was quietly relieved that lockdown restrictions meant that I wouldn’t have to witness it first-hand in the town’s pubs.  If the ostrich can survive for centuries by employing similar techniques, then I reckoned it was good enough for me.  I did everything I could think of to distract myself from the reality of the event:  undertaking a spring clean of my flat in keeping with the season, watching classic films I had missed over the years and immersing myself in music.  On YouTube, I came across the final television appearance of the rock star Warren Zevon on The Late Show With David Letterman in October 2002, some months after he had been diagnosed with a form of lung cancer that killed him a year later.  The host asked him if there was anything he understood now, facing his own mortality, that he didn’t before, and Zevon responded:  “You put more value in every minute.  It’s more valuable now.  You’re reminded to enjoy every sandwich.”  

For days I was trying my best to avoid my Facebook feed, which was filled with Rangers supporters who were enjoying the cheese and pickle sandwich of a Scottish Premier League title win, while the memories feature of the app was busy reminding me that five years ago I was embarking on my second trip to New York City.  As much as I enjoyed looking back at some of the old photographs from the holiday, it felt as though I was being taunted by a ghost when the furthest I can travel these days is the war memorial.  I decided to put the internet to better use in the hope of learning a new skill, and while it may not sound as impressive as some of the talents other people seemed to be cultivating during the extended period of being indoors, I was feeling quite pleased with myself when I cooked egg-fried rice for the first time.  As usual, the most difficult part of the dish was my attempt at measuring the amount of rice I would need when I was preparing it the evening before.  Rice is even more difficult to measure than pasta, which I always manage to cook too much of.  My ability has undoubtedly been hampered by the fact that the battery in the kitchen scales I bequeathed from home when I moved into my single occupancy has since died, and because I have never bothered to replace it I have been forced to measure certain ingredients ‘by eye’.  I believed that this was something I would get better at with experience, and especially now that I have my new glasses, but it turns out that I can no more remember how much pasta I poured into a pot two weeks ago than I can which day of the week it is.

They say that you can never have too much of a good thing, though, and I wasn’t about to complain about having a bowl which was piled with rice as tall as a molehill, especially not when it turned out to be so tasty.  That the egg-fried rice was so easy to make and just as delicious had me feeling ashamed that I had been buying the prepared packaged stuff from the supermarket for so long.  I wasn’t even put off eating those pouches of rice after the night in Aulay’s when the diminutive barmaid told me about the reason she had stopped buying them.  I was nursing a pint of Tennent’s at the end of the bar on a Wednesday night following another quiz defeat when for some reason the conversation turned to rice.  The barmaid mentioned that she had stopped buying the packaged rice as a consequence of a dinner-time disaster when she was squeezing the grains from the pouch into a stir fry and a dead mouse flopped into the wok.  All I can remember thinking was why she had felt it necessary to emphasise the fact that the mouse was dead when surely it was unlikely that it was going to appear amongst some processed food in any other condition.  The story never put me off buying the product, mainly because it seemed worth the very unlikely risk of finding a mouse in the packet for all the effort it saved from making egg-fried rice from scratch, though that no longer seems to be a reasonable excuse now that I know how simple it is to prepare egg-fried rice on my own.

It wasn’t much, but mastering even the most basic dish would be enough to allow me to leave lockdown feeling confident that the last year hadn’t been a complete waste.  Restrictions are due to start easing from the beginning of April, with beer gardens due to be reopened from the 26th and indoor hospitality resuming from the 17th of May.  I always imagined that if people still kept calendars in 2021 then those are the dates I would have been circling on mine, so it came as a bit of a surprise to me when I was listening to the First Minister outlining the Scottish government’s plans for relaxing the rules and it wasn’t the proposed dates for pubs being able to open that had me most excited, but the one where barbers could trade again.  It is early December since I last had my hair cut, and by now it is resembling the sketch a toddler might produce after being asked to draw a scarecrow.  There are hairs branching off in all directions, like rain falling on an early March day. 

The notion that a man who is as follically challenged as I am should be wishing his hairs away seemed absurd, but at the same time I am almost missing the barber as much as I do spending time with my own family, or seeing some of the friends I have lost touch with over the last year.  I miss the barber’s chair nearly as much as I do the barstool, even if for reasons of vanity more than anything else.  My ability to deal with unruly hair is on a level with my judgment when it comes to measuring rice, in that I am forced to do it ‘by eye’ and no matter what I do, there is always too much of it.   The more I think about it, the more I appreciate what Warren Zevon was getting at when he spoke about enjoying every sandwich, but I’ve come to realise that it’s more than sandwiches.  When the time comes, I’m going to enjoy the hell out of that hair cut.

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.

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.

Certain household types

Oban in June would normally have been a hive of activity, a town brought out of hibernation around the Easter weekend and given new life by visitors seeking the spell of good weather that often straddled the end of May and the beginning of the sixth month.  Cruise liners would ferry to shore day-trippers who were eager to sample the fresh locally-caught seafood and admire with wide-eyed wonder the coastal sights around town.  BID4Oban’s flower baskets would hang from every lamppost, colouring in otherwise empty spaces.  The restaurants and coffee shops thrived with the gentle hum of hungry customers, table after table of them.  Around town, the predominant smell would be a heady mix of suncream and Lynx bodyspray and the sea breeze carrying the fragrance of fish and chips.  Pubs would have been buoyant with guests who after their first dram of Oban Malt had lost all inhibitions when it came to sampling whisky.  The native drinkers arrived without inhibition.  There wasn’t a more brilliant place to be than Oban in June.

Nothing about 2020 was normal, though, and unusual sights were still popping up all over the place in the early days of June, like the most maddening puppet show ever produced.  On the Esplanade, outside the Bishop’s house by St. Columba’s Cathedral, a small lorry had broken down.  It was a warm Thursday evening, one of those days where I regretted leaving the flat with a denim jacket, and the sun looked like a brand new fork in an old cutlery drawer when it was cast onto the surface of the sea.  The neck of the lorry was bowed forward, as though in prayer, while a man wearing a luminous vest was standing on the pavement across the road from the church waving oncoming traffic around the obstruction.  I saw the scene from a mile away, figuratively speaking, and by the time I had neared the stricken vehicle, the driver had obviously grown tired of the steady stream of cars and he crossed the road and opened the driver’s side door before reaching inside and dressing it in a high-visibility jacket of its own.  It was the most misshapen scarecrow I had ever seen, but it seemed to do the job.  

The sun looked like a brand new fork in an old cutlery drawer


I stepped around the stationary obstacle of the lorry driver on the pavement as he admired his traffic management and continued on my daily walk out to the war memorial, where on my way I witnessed as a seagull was scavenging amongst the scraps of wood and metal in a large skip outside a guest house which appeared to be under renovation.  It was pure opportunism, no doubt driven by the desperation of a town without tourists who would happily toss chips towards the birds all day long, and it was hard to imagine that the seagull enjoyed any success from the bin.  By the time I had doubled back on my footsteps, the driver was smoking a cigarette, and it occurred that rather than having become restless at having to constantly wave traffic around his broken-down vehicle, he simply needed his hand to hold the cigarette.

Further into town, I noticed that Webster’s camera shop was being coated with a new flash of yellow paint, while at the automated hole in the wall outside the Bank Of Scotland a man was withdrawing money from the machine.  The scene really took me by surprise since I didn’t think that there were any places open which were still dealing in cash, as contactless card payments were considered to be much safer, and I wondered what the man was going to use the notes for.  As I thought about it some more, I came to realise that I couldn’t remember the last time I even handled cash.  I would guess that it was probably around February or early March when I last bought a beer in Aulay’s with cash, but I couldn’t be sure.  It was much like my romantic relationships with women in that respect, though it was difficult to think which I was most likely to get my hands on first.

A week before the summer solstice, the sun was beating so brightly that there was no cause for me to be wearing a jacket, although having run out of time in my morning routine to iron a shirt I was still having to wear a sweater vest to hide my indiscrete creases.  I had found myself in the habit for some months of wearing a sweater vest over my shirt to work, and most people had taken it as just another of my fashion quirks, when the truth almost always was that I just hadn’t bothered to iron.  It was presumably after I had left the freshly reopened Oban Beer Seller shop to collect my second order of craft beer from Karen that I was spotted on the street by a Czech marine biologist who later appeared on one of our pub recreations on Zoom over the weekend and told me that I was looking very hot when she had seen me.  I thanked her since I never had the opportunity to respond to a woman commenting on my appearance being hot, although I was aware that her words were more likely to have been in reference to my rosy cheeks rather than what yoga had been doing to my cheeks.

On another day, I passed a man at quarter to nine in the morning who was carrying four bottles of Yazoo flavoured milkshake – two in each hand.  At least one of the bottles was the banana flavour, which I didn’t think people still bought.  Chocolate or strawberry milkshake I could understand having a craving for, but not banana.  The Coronavirus pandemic was affecting people in some terrible ways, it seemed.  The man was moving with some haste – even quicker than I was, and I liked to power walk in the morning.  It was as though he was concerned that several weeks or months of inaction on the shelves in the shop could have left the milk without much shake.  Not only were people craving banana milkshake, but they were in a rush to drink it, too.  It was as unfathomable to me as the snippet of conversation I overheard between two women as they were passing the window of my office, when one remarked to the other:  “She was always getting her eyebrows and chin done.”

An article in the previous weekend’s edition of The Sunday Post newspaper reported that Oban’s economy had been the worst affected by the lockdown in the entire country, with consumer spending reducing by 68% according to their data.  The news just didn’t seem to be getting any better.  It wasn’t surprising that a town which relies so heavily on tourism would suffer the most when people couldn’t travel, but it was a blow to many to see it in black and white print all the same.  

  Source: The Sunday Post

There was great relief around the middle of the month when the next phase in the gradual lifting of restrictions allowed some places which had previously been classed as non-essential to begin reopening, or at least to start preparing to operate again from the end of the month.  Outlets offering takeaway food and drinks, like Costa Coffee, Subway, the Pokey Hat ice cream shop, and Bossards Patisserie, were opened up for the first time since March, though they had to adhere to strict guidelines.  There were limits to the number of people who were allowed inside the premises at the same time – usually one or two, though it was twenty in WH Smith, and I struggled to remember a time that I had last seen twenty people in WH Smith.  It was probably before they stopped selling CDs.  Some places were operating a one-way system, where customers would enter through one door and exit by another, and there had to be visible signage to indicate a safe two-metre distance for those who were queuing.  It was only when I saw the two metres set out in such an explicit way that I was reminded of what it used to be like when we were in bars and I was trying to talk to a woman.  The first ‘2m’ marker looked to be approximately the distance she would have moved away after I had first tried a joke, and the next one would be where she would have been standing after I had repeated the line in case she just didn’t get it the first time.

A visualisation of the distance a woman moves away after I have attempted a joke


Further stages in the second phase of lockdown were announced by the Scottish government which meant that even more ‘non-essential’ shops would soon be permitted to re-open, places of worship would allow individual prayer, the wearing of face masks on public transport would become compulsory, and larger groups of people would be able to meet outdoors and at a distance.  Perhaps the biggest change in the guidance was that “certain household types” could now meet indoors and with no physical distancing to form an extended household.  People immediately interpreted this to be relating to single people and those who were living alone.  The single occupants like me who received a 25% discount on their council tax.  For all intents and purposes, we had been given the green light to have sex.  It all sounded very lovely, and I couldn’t help from feeling excited by the idea of it all.  I had a spring in my step as I walked home from work that evening, another sunny Friday.  Then I thought about it and realised that, of course, it wasn’t a government matchmaking scheme for lonely hearts and I was still going to have to actually talk to women first before I could form an extended household with anybody.

What good would Argyll & Bute council assigning me with another “certain household type” have done anyway?  With my hapless luck, it would only have been yet another farce.  We couldn’t extend our households in my flat on account of the crepuscular lighting and my inability to efficiently change the bedsheets.  The chances are that I would have been coupled with someone who didn’t share my interests, who hated listening to Ryan Adams and U2, a woman who wasn’t amused by my sense of humour and who would have no desire to have sex with me anyway.  It would have been like all of my other relationships. As ever, it was obvious that I was still going to be relying on the sweater vests to make me feel hot.

This week I have been mostly listening to…

There is an official music video for this 1997 single from the Britpop band Reef, but the album version is 2 minutes longer and is just that bit better.

A hundred legs and one shoe

If there was a surface anywhere that was colder than my bathroom floor at seven-thirty on a Thursday morning I was yet to discover it.  There wasn’t really such a thing as a surface which was pleasing underfoot in my flat, but the bathroom especially was like if someone had taken the proverbial other side of the pillow and manufactured linoleum tiling out of it.  It was because of this that I always resented the fact that my morning routine was the busiest part of my day.  Although it was tempting in my weaker moments to consider that – particularly in the spring of 2020 – people had other things to worry about besides the appearance of my face, I would never have forgiven myself if I had neglected to trim my stubble to a fine 1.0mm every other morning and ended up having to care for a fully-grown beard, the way that someone feeds a stray kitten once and is eventually forced into giving it a home.

I was applying moisturiser to my face when the rough realisation occurred to me that the sound coming from the roadworks which had been ongoing outside my window since the beginning of the week was not too dissimilar to the album by the Scottish band The Twilight Sad that we had been listening to for the upcoming meeting of the album club.  Constant, loud, and often unsettling.  And just when you were beginning to think that they had finally stopped, they start banging all over again.  The noise didn’t trouble me so much since I had become used to living on a busy street during my two years as a single occupant, but I was worrying intensely about how much air freshener I would need to use if I wanted to open the windows.

Whilst brushing my teeth I would usually rotate my gaze around the entire room and study various features around me.  The nearly empty bottle of Joop!  Go aftershave which I had suddenly stopped using years earlier when I noticed that it was turning the collars of my shirts a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle shade of green, the almost whole toilet roll sitting atop the cistern because I had been too lazy to attach it to the wall yet – although I didn’t have a traditional toilet roll holder anyway and would usually have it dangling from the towel rail with a red ribbon.  Anything to avoid making eye contact with myself in the foggy mirror.  I glanced out of the open bathroom door across the landing to my bedroom, which had been illuminated by the marvellous morning sunlight and the flashing amber of the road maintenance vehicle stationed across the street.  My eyes screwed up as I tried to bring into focus a tiny green object which was moving slowly across the floor, almost like a small piece of thread being agitated in a breeze.  I would have felt more worried by the vision if I’d thought that it could have come from one of my shirts, but I knew that fabric couldn’t crawl.  It was either a centipede or a millipede, but I couldn’t really be sure of the difference between the two.  All that I did know was that there were at least ninety-eight legs more than there had ever been in my bedroom.

I had seen the occasional spider or moth milling around my flat, but never a centipede.  They always seemed like one of those insects that only ever existed in children’s books.  Where would one even come from?  And what would it want on my bedroom floor?   I rinsed my mouth and thought about how best to rid my flat of an interloping insect, but there didn’t seem to be a straightforward way of dealing with a centipede.  It wasn’t like a spider, whose black spindly legs would carry the creature into a glass before it had even realised where it was, like a drunk spilling into a taxi at the end of the night.  The little thing appeared to be making its way towards the exit anyway, an act which in itself convinced me that the centipede was surely a female of the species, and I figured that eventually it would leave on its own accord.

I was in a sort of a blind rush that morning since I had made the sudden decision that it would be the day where I would wash my bedsheets.  Changing the bedding had always been my most loathed of household chores, and the one I was most inept at performing.  It always seemed to me that it was something a couple would do together and share the benefit of their efforts, like building lawn furniture, and I never knew why I should care if the duvet was the right way round or the bottom sheet was fitted perfectly snug around the mattress.  Nobody was ever going to know.  I went through the charade every other week all the same, though, and the entire process was always a farce from morning to night.

Hanging the wet linen on the airer in my kitchen was a particularly crude exercise, with the sheets being so much bigger than the contraption that it gave the appearance of a seriously underwhelming haunting.  I never used the much more spacious rotary airer in the garden through fear of being judged by my neighbours.  My hanging technique was never especially confident, going back to the days where as a youth in the summer holidays I would often snare the job of hanging out the washing since our parents were running a bed and breakfast and there was always a lot of it, so it was a good opportunity to earn some extra pocket money.  My work often looked sloppy and shapeless, though, and I always suspected that mum would go outside a little later and re-hang some of the items, especially duvets and shirts, though I could never prove it.

Worse than having my ability to hang laundry critiqued would be the idea of others judging the clothes themselves, which seemed ridiculous when I didn’t think twice about being seen wearing pink socks paired with a baby blue shirt, but somehow having them viewed on a washing line seemed different.  As though they were on display.  I felt that if I was going to use the communal concertina then I would have to stand by it at all times in the event that anyone should approach and I could explain that I also had a coral pink tie to match and that I had put together the outfit the previous Friday and had been feeling unusually good about myself at the time, in the manner of a guide at the Natural History Museum.

When putting fresh sheets on the bed I would always change the pillowcases first, since it was the easiest part of the process and I could convince myself that things were going well this time.  It wouldn’t last, however, and it wasn’t long before the other end of the bottom sheet was unravelling as I tried tucking in the last corner.  Matters with the duvet were even more complex, and trying to convince the thing into the white cover was as difficult as trying to convince a woman that it would be a good idea to talk to me.  It would never lie straight and flat, and after a period of breathless frustration, the whole episode had taken on the resemblance of a really bad game of hide and seek, where one of the participants had thought that hiding in the bed would be a good idea, only to be given away by the lumpy outline of his body under the duvet.  By the time I had finally gotten it right, I had spent nigh upon forty minutes making my bed.

Thursday 28 May was also the day that the Scottish Government announced that from Friday the country would be moving into the first phase of the easing of lockdown restrictions, meaning that, amongst other things, people would now be allowed to meet up with one other household outdoors and with social distancing in place.  It was such a small thing to be told that you could now see another person, previously unthinkable that it would even be a thing, but it felt enormous.  Until then the most pressing concern on my mind was the shoe which had been cast astray on the shoreline amongst a tangle of seaweed and debris the day after a storm the previous weekend.  It was black, and maybe more like a trainer than a shoe.  I found myself looking out for it every day on my walk; in a weird way it had become a kind of monument to the hopelessness I’d been feeling.

I had always taken an interest in discoveries like these.  A glove by the side of the road or a sandal standing on a wall, but a shoe washed ashore seemed like it would have a more fascinating story behind it.  It was impossible not to wonder how it had arrived there or to consider where the other half of the pair was.  Somewhere, there was surely someone who had woken up on Sunday morning and wondered where the fuck their right shoe had gone.  For five days straight I was peering over the top of the railings, eager to see if the shoe was still there, whether the tide had reached it to drag it back into the sea, or if the rightful owner, presumably hobbling around on one foot all this time, had spotted their missing footwear like I had and had been reunited with it.  I had taken someone else’s drama and made it my own since there was nothing else I could be invested in.

At various points around town, the smell of fresh paint punched you on the nose as you walked the streets.  I couldn’t be sure if it was people preparing their businesses for reopening in the weeks and months ahead, in line with the different phases of the lockdown plan, or if they simply had nothing better to do.  The washing was on the line, the bed had been made and they had half an hour to spare. 


May’s the one – my Spotify playlist for the month of May

This week I have mostly been listening to…


The first occurrence of rainfall in a while always had me reaching firstly for the coat I had discarded in hope and haste a few days earlier, and then a few hours later for the website dictionary.com, where I would use the opportunity to review one of my favourite words.  I could never remember when or how I had first heard petrichor used, but I know that it immediately grabbed my attention, and every time it rained after a prolonged dry spell I would search for it in the dictionary, just to be able to look at it again.  It was impossible to say exactly why I had a habit of doing it or what purpose it served, much like adding the accoutrement of a pocket square to my suit before going out on a Friday night, other than that I liked the way it looked.

It was the first Friday of May and it had been raining through the previous night, leaving the morning ground with a light glaze of moisture and the atmosphere heavy with petrichor.  The scent was as distinctive as the one which funnelled from the Oban Distillery every other day, though not nearly as frequent since it was rare for there to have been so many days without rain as there had been towards the end of April.  It was all I could do to inhale every whisper of it in, finally a use for the breathing techniques I had been learning in my daily yoga sessions.

Accompanying the earthy fragrance was a thick silver curtain of mist that always seemed to cling around the edges of the town at times like these.  I could have sworn that such a sight must have been unique to the west coast of Scotland, where somehow the mist on a day like this one in May would resemble a stage curtain and the audience was in the throes of anticipation, just waiting for it to lift and reveal the theatre of the landscape.  I adored the vision, and even if the mist was simply acting to hide something beautiful, it was itself quite beautiful.  In that sense, it reminded me of a long striking red dress I had once seen.

This particular Friday was the start of a bank holiday weekend to mark the 75th anniversary of VE Day and the end of the Second World War in Europe, though I hadn’t been aware of the holiday until a couple of people who I was talking to through work made mention of it.  By this point, weekends had become an extension of a Tuesday night, inconsequential and indistinguishable from any other day, and it hadn’t occurred to me that bank holidays would still be a thing.  It was towards the end of this weekend that stories began to emerge surrounding the UK government’s plans to ease the lockdown in England, where it was reported that the “stay at home” message was going to be replaced by a new advisory to “stay alert”.  Nobody could really understand how they were supposed to be alert to virus particles, given that they weren’t like potholes on a road or a thronging beehive.  It seemed fortunate that the Scottish government’s approach was still focussed more towards public health, and the only easing of our restrictions was to allow us to exercise outdoors as often as we liked.  While I felt a certain bitterness that the second piece of exercise I had been able to sneak since returning to work was no longer just my own special thing, it felt good to be rewarded for our efforts in keeping each other safe.  The announcement reminded me of when we were told at the beginning of the school holidays that if we were well behaved and carried out certain chores around the house we would be given £5 pocket money every week, and if we kept it up and maybe even did some extra dusting without being asked or made a special trip to the shop for milk or Ruskoline, there would be more of where that came from by the end of the summer.

Around Oban there were signs that people and businesses were slowly beginning to find ways of adapting to the changing situation.  There was a gradual reopening, on a limited basis, of some places which had been closed since the end of March, mostly takeaway restaurants, chip shops, and a couple of bars which were offering a delivery service.   However, after more than five weeks of sitting in an empty flat with a case of Tennent’s Lager on a Friday night trying to replicate the experience of being in Aulay’s, I had come to the realisation that it wasn’t the pint of cold draft beer I was missing, but rather the people around the bar who I would have been talking to, or too scared to talk to, as was sometimes the case.  I couldn’t imagine ordering four pints of Tennent’s to drink at home, because I would still be alone, and although Zoom was great for keeping in touch with people and offering some form of social interaction, it was difficult to escape the feeling that our entire lives were now being conducted through a screen.  Drinking with friends on a Friday or a Saturday night was like watching a scene from a bar in a poorly shot indie film where the small budget didn’t extend to hiring a hairstylist.

Elsewhere, I had noticed that the Oban Cycles shop was finally permitted to open for three days a week as the rules slackened and exercise became more of a priority.  Since the majority of the people I would see when I was out walking were either running or cycling, and far more people than ever before seemed to have access to a bicycle, it struck me that the bike shop being able to open six or seven weeks into the lockdown would be like waiting all summer to receive planning permission to open a lemonade stall, only for it to be granted the day after the heatwave had broken.

Further south on George Street, I found myself approaching a young woman who was emerging from the drizzly distance carrying a tray which had three potted houseplants sitting in it.  It seemed like a very typical bank holiday purchase to have made, even in the new world.  For a moment it had me considering if it was time for me to make another attempt at keeping houseplants in my flat, but I just as quickly reckoned that there was enough suffering without me needlessly adding to it.  The young woman was methodical with her footsteps, very cautious, almost shuffling along the pavement, as though her boots were cast from clay.  She was cradling the tray of plants like it was the most precious thing in the world to her, like a mother carrying her child, or me back in the days when I was trying to ferry a round of drinks to a table in the pub without spilling anything.

I had only learned – or, perhaps more appropriately, bothered to try learning – a few weeks before the lockdown was enforced how to schedule a recurring event in the calendar on my phone.  Up until then, I would have to go through each individual week and plug in the same event at the same time, no different to when I was circling dates with a pen on my old glossy Celtic calendars as a boy.  All of this meant that at eight o’clock on a Wednesday night my phone was still pinging and I would receive a reminder that the pub quiz in The Lorne was due to start in an hour.  I never had the heart to cancel the calendar entries, partly through fear that when the normal life we had known resumed I wouldn’t remember how to create a weekly event again.  I missed my quiz team and the weekly hope that this time we would finally win, the revolving door of characters we would convince to join our pursuit of the £25 bar voucher.  I was becoming rusty in my knowledge of the nationality of football players, and what little I knew about the different lines on the London Underground had all but vanished.  It wasn’t all the time, but there were moments when it felt as though the lockdown was getting harder to deal with and it was difficult to find that same kind of hope that arrived as the picture round was being distributed on wet tables, the belief that the veil of mist would soon be lifted and we could see the beautiful islands once more.

Everybody was missing friends they couldn’t be with, the family they couldn’t see, though a lot of people seemed to be using the time to find new hobbies and pick up different skills, like building a fence, playing the guitar or riding a bike.  At the bottom of the stairway in my block of flats, where once there was one lone bicycle chained to the railing and before that there were two buggies – although only ever one toddler – there were now three bikes.  They were arranged in a neat cluster so that people could still easily access the back garden, sort of in a triangle formation where each of the front wheels was touching.  I was talking to one of my upstairs neighbours when I arrived home for lunch one afternoon, and she was delighted about the Scottish government’s announcement that we could exercise more than once a day.  I noted the multiplying numbers of bicycles in the close and she looked at them and said, “I don’t know where I would be without my bike.”  It wasn’t until a couple of days later that the perfect line in response came to me.  How hilarious it would have been, I thought, if I could have joked:  “Presumably you’d be in the same place, but you got there more slowly.”  But by then it was too late, like reopening the bike shop after everyone had bought a bicycle.

I hadn’t quite developed a knack for a new hobby during the lockdown.  Rather, the furthest I had gotten was to consider replacing the net curtains I had inherited when I bought my flat with Venetian blinds, but it was hard to make the argument that transforming my living room and bedroom into places where a thirty-six-year-old man, rather than an eighty-three-year-old lady, might live would be an essential purchase.  In another instance, I caught myself thinking about investing in a proper spice rack, since my method at the time of storing jars in a cupboard meant that I couldn’t always see them, and often I would forget exactly what I had stock of and would end up buying duplicate basil.  I was reluctant to make such an important decision on matters of kitchen storage in the uncertainty of a global pandemic, however, and I baulked at the idea of having to reorganise my counter space.  Would I be forced to move the toaster to make room for a spice rack?  Where would the glass pouring jars of olive oil and vinegar go, and what would fill the vacated space in the cupboard?  It was becoming clear that I needed a proper past-time, rather than a better way of storing thyme.

Things were changing day-to-day, and the only constant was that nothing was certain.  Mixed and often unclear messages from different governments, especially from London, weren’t helping anybody.  Walking through the eerily quiet streets in town no longer felt like being in a Radiohead song, as it had in the beginning, but instead was more like standing on the set of a western movie minutes before the big climactic gunfight takes place.  The streets were empty, but there was an unmistakable air of threat looming.  Dust coughs under shuffled footsteps; a seagull stands on the sea wall, starved of chips, squawking as loud as a rattlesnake.  An older man sits on a bench reading the newspaper, seemingly oblivious to the oncoming trouble.  A flag flutters defiantly against its pole.  In the distance, a saloon door is swinging open ominously in the breeze, where inside it looks like a Zoom meeting.  A beer bottle is heard breaking, and it sounds as though things might kick off.  Tumbleweed briskly rolls by whispering “stay alert”, and soon the faint whiff of gunpowder is evident in the atmosphere.  Or was it just petrichor?

Links & things:

The dictionary.com definition of the word ‘petrichor’ can be found here.

Over the last two weeks I have mostly been listening to the following song by Israel Nash:

Hair today, still hair tomorrow

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Links & things:

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

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

Spring in the lockdown age

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Links & things:

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

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

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

An Easter like no other

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

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

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

The streets in Oban were empty on Easter weekend

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

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

There was no al fresco dining at Piazza restaurant

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Two Calmac ferries social distancing in Oban Bay.

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

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

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

Links & things:

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

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

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

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

Time on my hands

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

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

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

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

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

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

Frozen in time: the ice cream menu at Bossards


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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