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:

The day of the spring clean

The infant days of April arrived with a sense of spring that was carried over the town by the warmth of a big, bold sun which bathed in the still sea.  When walking through George Street there were dank leftover oozes of winter when the sun would disappear behind the buildings, which for a few days made it difficult to decide how heavy a coat should be worn.  Until midweek I was persevering with my long black coat, wary of the chill that was still liable to creep up on a person.  This reminded me of the way that my niece always likes to hide behind the curtain in my living room when we are playing hide and seek, and I have to pretend that I don’t know that she’s there.

There is a legitimate vibrancy about the place when the sun is out.  Everything is brighter and everybody seems happier.  Though as much as I really want to enjoy the more pleasant climate of the season, I have found that spring only makes me feel miserable.  More specifically, hayfever is misery.  With the choked sinuses, the red eyes and the constant feeling of tiredness, hayfever can make spring seem like the beautiful friend you have but who you can never get as close to as you would like, because it only ever stings.

It cannot be emphasised enough how much of a pain hayfever is.  It is an ever-present nuisance throughout the finest months of the year; an irritant which for most of the time won’t leave you alone, and which you can do nothing about.  It is an allergy to joy.  Yet it isn’t overwhelming enough for a person to complain about, at least my hayfever isn’t.  It isn’t like the flu or a complete breakdown of the immune system.  It is a fly which you can’t swat.

Oban was a sight in all of its spring splendour.  The sun was casting shards of light onto the sea like it was a George Noble disco.  Families were strolling along the Esplanade with ice cream cones.  Heavy winter jackets had been replaced by loose clothing, such as t-shirts.  The al fresco areas of coffee shops and bars were bustling.  On the pavements there was a hive of activity as dozens and dozens of disoriented pedestrians were ambling in no particular direction.  They were all of a certain vintage and each of them had the appearance of someone who had been walking for several hours for no discernable reason.  There was a dazed look on their faces, and it figured that they had likely come off the cruise ship which was docked in the bay and was the size of a small island.  

Having made land for the first time in hours, or possibly even days, everything the tourists saw was new and wonderous.  Everywhere they looked there was a fresh photo opportunity:  the green hills cradling the town, the sky as blue as a carpet, a fishing boat crawling across the water, a seagull eating a chip, an empty Tesco carrier bag agitated by the breeze.

The sunny days were stretching long into the night, making it possible to enjoy a beer in daylight late into the evening.  I met with the bird watcher and a departing rugby playing accountant in the beer garden of the Perle Hotel, where the price of a Fyne Ales Workbench IPA was broadly similar to its ABV percentage.  It was after eight o’clock and as we were drinking our pints the setting sun was being returned to the lonesome ocean. The location was serene, despite the beer garden only being separated from the town’s transportation hub by a wall which was not much taller than an Ottoman.  Relaxed holidaymakers were rolling their luggage into the hotel behind us.  Nearby, tourists were strolling under a sky which was purple, amber and all of the shades at the warmer end of a colour chart.  Groups of schoolchildren were walking by, revelling in the freedom of another evening of their half-term break.  “Your dick is tiny,” one of the girls shouted down the street at a guy she knew, presumably.

The girl in question congregated on the other side of the small wall with another girl and one of the boys who was in the company of the lad with the allegedly inadequate appendage.  They were maybe around thirteen or fourteen-years-old, though with my eyes it was difficult to be sure.  Their conversation was not discreet, and it soon became clear that a picture of a penis had been sent from the boy to the girl on the mobile phone app SnapChat.  I was thinking about how the most salacious thing I had communicated through social media was a request for the best place in town to buy shoelaces, after the pair on my black shoes had snapped in my hand, leaving one end shorter than the other.

It was an unusual place to be considering it, but I was finding myself in a moral tug of war as to which of the parties I had most sympathy for:  the girl who may have been the victim of an unsolicited dick pic, or the boy with the pensive penis which might have been goaded into action.  Although the decision to send such an intimate image through SnapChat was at best questionable, I was equally concerned with the issue of who had made the girl an authority on dicks.  There were all sorts of reasons that the image may have been underwhelming; an unflattering filter for one, or a sense of artistic creativity which had not yet been fully developed.

The question of the teenager’s method of seduction was bothering me.  I couldn’t help but wonder if the photograph had been the culmination of a lengthy flirtation process, or if the boy had made a bold, balls-out decision to send a picture of his penis to a girl in the hope that it might impress someone.  It seemed to me that the latter scenario would be a mistake.  Even if SnapChat images disappear after a short period of time, the taunting over the size of the image was likely to last much longer.  It would potentially define his high school years, whereas when I make a stupid joke to a girl in the pub the feeling of futility only lasts until the next stupid joke.

The extended hours of sunshine were bringing light into parts of my flat which had only ever existed in perpetual darkness, as though shining a spotlight on my cleaning.  Suddenly I was made aware of a layer of dust on the foot of the mirror in the corner of my bedroom, and of a cobweb on the fireplace.  It was an opportunity for a literal spring clean, and as I went about the task I sneezed repeatedly and loudly.  On my knees, I thought about the stories the passengers from the cruise liner would have to tell their friends when they eventually returned home from their travels.  They would wax lyrical about the sunny shores and the scenery on the west coast of Scotland.  They would recall the busy town they had visited and the insults they thought they had heard the teenagers trade, though couldn’t be sure because English isn’t their native language.  Then there was the man in the long black coat whose eyes were red as though from crying at the arrival of spring.  Of all the unusual things, hating spring has to be up there.

The week I remembered that I have hay fever

These spring days are a wonderous thing.  In the morning I awake to shards of sunlight streaming through the pale curtains which are closed over my bedroom window, and to the bustling sound of the local binmen emptying the three recycling bins gathered outside.  Through in the kitchen I can hear the harmony of birds tweeting in the garden; 140 characters or less.  I take a detour along the esplanade on my way to work under a bright blue sky casting crystals into the calm sea.  The temperature threatens to rise to a level where I might consider changing out of my long black winter overcoat.  The same walk is repeated in the evening, in reverse, because it is still daylight and all of a sudden the days feel much longer, even if they are still the same 24 hours they have always been.

The extended days of spring crackle with a wealth of fresh opportunity.  Families walk along the pavements, spread out across the tarmac like a fan, messily lapping at ice cream cones for the first time since the early days of September.  I admire their ability to walk and eat at the same time – a feat I would never dare attempt through fear of how horribly it would inevitably go wrong – though find it frustrating as I try to amble around them.  Al fresco diners fill the seating areas outside the coffee shops and at night the bars are alive with dancers.

Meanwhile I am feeling a slight scratching in the back of my throat and a sort of sniffle taunting the lining of my nose.  My eyes develop a demand to be rubbed and it isn’t long before they resemble the aftermath of a small bee sting.  They water in the way some girls eyes do once I have attempted seduction, and a lethargy washes over me.  Initially I suspect that I am experiencing the onset of a cold – such terrible timing, I think to myself – but I haven’t been in contact with any other sick people and surely a cold doesn’t just happen?  I remembered that when I was younger my mother would often tell me that I probably suffer from very mild hay fever and, even though I never knew her to be wrong about anything, I would never fully believe this to be true.  This was partly because I couldn’t understand how it could be possible to be afflicted by something you’re supposed to be able to count but can’t, and also because I didn’t want to be that guy who is allergic to spring.

This week, however, I began to accept the possibility that I might have hay fever when it seemed like it could go some way to explaining some of my unusual behaviours of late.  After all, what man can think straight when he is literally being attacked by the most beautiful season of the year?

On Thursday of the week before last I went shopping in Aldi for a few essential goods:  coffee, milk, eggs, pizza.  As I walked up the fresh produce aisle I passed a woman who I had met at an event at the Rockfield Community Centre some time last year.  We had a favourable interaction that night and I recall that when she told me that she had recently started working for an accountancy firm in town I responded by saying that as I also work in the financial sector we probably shouldn’t be talking.  I said this in the hope that I could engineer some kind of Romeo and Juliet scenario, but with less death and tragedy.  She seemed to recognise me and smiled and said hello.  I continued with my shopping and proceeded to the checkout, where I typically found myself behind a man with a large trolley.  I unloaded my four items onto the conveyor belt and continued listening to The Decemberists.  Soon I became aware that the woman from the rival accountants was approaching behind me and I began to consider how my diet might appear to her.  Ordinarily my basket would have mango and blueberries, perhaps asparagus or mangetout, some sweet potato, chicken breast, parsley, spinach and cherry tomatoes.  But I had bought all of that on Wednesday and here I had pizza and milk; the one with the green lid, indicating that I am only a semi-healthy person.

“I always worry how my shopping is going to look to someone behind me,” I said removing my earphones.  “It’s usually a lot more healthy than this,” I assured her as I glanced at my 89p double pepperoni pizza.  She offered a consolation smile and pointed out that the first item out of her basket was a bottle of red wine.  “At least there are grapes in there.”  Even I cringed as those words fell from my mouth.

My interactions with women would only become worse on Friday, although for a time it seemed things were going well when a young lady at the bar expressed an interest in my bright pink pocket square and would eventually show me how to fold it correctly – or at least better than I had been doing.  This traveller from Norfolk remarked that my fashion ensemble resembled Jon Snow and I made some quip about the much desired after character from the television series Game of Thrones, knowing that she was referring to the Channel 4 newsreader.  We engaged in conversation and I could see that some of my words were making her smile.  I learned that she was travelling through Oban on her way to a job interview on Morvern this week and that she was spending the night in a backpackers hostel.  For reasons I have yet to establish my next question was to ask how the bed is.  After several seconds of aching silence I told her that I was aware how odd my last question sounded and I pleaded that I had asked it in a strictly non-sexual manner.  She advised me, quite logically, that she didn’t know how the bed was because she had not yet slept in it, and the dialogue ceased.  To compound my error I wished her luck for her interview on Coll as I was leaving.

In an effort to give my flat some character I have recently been decorating the walls with picture frames and pieces of art.  In February I bought a 94 x 56 cm mounted print of Jackson Pollock’s Convergence, though it has been sitting on my breakfast bar since it arrived as its size convinced me that hanging it on the wall would be a two person job, least of all because I was never entirely sure how or where on the wall a picture should be hung.  On Sunday I decided that attempting to hang this piece of art by myself would be exactly the kind of endeavour needed to prove my worth after the farce of Friday, and it turned out that hanging a picture is remarkably straightforward.  I felt pleased with my accomplishment and enjoyed a bottle of red wine to celebrate.  In a drunken haze, fuelled by the confidence that I now know how to hang things, I went online and ordered a Henri Matisse print.  This made a change, I thought, from my usual routine of drunk buying socks and ties from Slaters.

It is perhaps my habit of buying art and fashion accessories which leads me to being thrifty in other areas of life.  At one stage this week I suffered a repetitive strain injury to my thumb and index finger from squeezing an almost but not quite empty tube of toothpaste.  My desperation to use every last ounce of the stuff was such that I began contemplating whether I could use a knife to slice open the tube and scrape the last of the paste onto my brush.  Eventually I accepted that such action would be beyond the pale and I bought a new carton of toothpaste.

One morning this week while my toothbrush was clenched between my pained index finger and thumb and I was cleaning my teeth it occurred to me that I hadn’t watered my houseplants in some time.  I can only assume that it was the running water which brought this realisation, because despite them being the only other living being I have to care for, my attention to the wellbeing of my houseplants is lacking.  I try to tell myself that this isn’t due to an absence of love for my family of foliage and that they are more difficult to look after than children or dogs because at least they have a way of making a person aware that they are in need of nourishment or attention, whereas I only know that my plants need water when they are resembling a nearly dead thing.  It is because of this inability to communicate that two of the four plants I inherited when I moved into my flat have since gone to the great window box in the sky.

The effects of my allergy to spring were proving to be quite profound as the week went on, and I can only attribute a loss of senses through hay fever to the situation I found myself in on Friday night when I finally had the opportunity to invite a lovely girl back to my place after closing time at the bar, only to realise when I got home that the only mixer I could offer to accompany the seven bottles of Jack Daniels I have was orange juice.  This was despite me laying awake for at least a few minutes on Thursday night considering how if I am to have an efficient home bar I would need to keep a regular supply of sodas and coke.  I can only wonder how different things might have been if I didn’t feel the need to blow my nose on Friday afternoon.