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Pandemically naked

It’s a pleasant autumn evening, crisp, mild and bright. The main road running alongside us is much quieter than usual, the interminable thunder of trucks and the whoosh of vans has given way to the odd sigh of a lone car. Most people seem to be obeying the guidelines and staying at home.

I’m struggling with the temptation to abandon the desk, head outdoors and enjoy what’s left of the mellow autumn day. The weather forecasters are all talk about an ‘unsettled spell’, their gentle euphemism for wind, rain and misery.

Occasionally I stick my head out the door to remind myself how lovely it is. Each time I do, the dog is convinced a walk is the next thing on the agenda. He wags his whole body from stem to stern in anticipation of an opportunity to sniff his way along a few miles of the ditch.

I have to disappoint him, the blank screen with its pulsating cursor is waiting for the string of words that will go to make up this week’s column. The thing is terrorising me. Like the unmarked page of old it is an unforgiving taskmaster, a tyrant in the life of the scribbler.

I was about to introduce you to a book by David Wallace Wells entitled ‘The Uninhabitable Earth – Life after Warming’ . I mentioned it in a column a few weeks ago but, given that we are just beginning another period of strict confinement, I think I’ll hold off; I could drive us all to gin and sin if I start. There will be a time for embracing that awful reality and I fear Mr Wallace-Wells predictions will defy any gentle euphemisms – unsettled spells indeed.

As we begin our six weeks of collective quarantine we are already unsettled and not in the least united in our approach. The notion that we are all in this together is as frayed as a rag on a May bush. People are wondering if your man in Sweden was right all along? Our own experts vehemently disagree with this. There is tension everywhere, between the politicians and the medics, between politicians and politicians, between families, friends and neighbours.

There are so many pandemic protocols to remember; stand back from people, wash your hands, use the sanitiser and - mortal sin of mortal sins - don’t forget your mask.

I am reminded of the time the plastic bags were banned and you’d arrive at the supermarket only to realise that the shopping bags were hanging on the back door at home. Or worse, you’d arrive at the check-out with a full trolley and remember you left them in the car. At that point you have a big row with yourself; will you park the trolley, leap over the check-out and run like hell to the car for the blasted bags, will you check the shopping through, load it back into the trolley and transfer it loosely to the boot, or will you buy yet another collection of bags-for-life?

It’s the same story with the masks. You’re driving into town and suddenly you remember - at least, you remember you’ve forgotten it. Panic strikes, the blood leaves your face and, without stopping the car you begin to rummage around the seats hoping there’s one somewhere. You feel around the glove compartment, you put your hands down the side pocket – there might be one tangled in the myriad of biros, empty sweet wrappers and discarded till receipts. As a last resort you lean across to check the side pocket at the passenger side. This is the trickiest manoeuvre, how do you lie across two seats and search for a face mask while keeping an eye on the road, a hand on the steering wheel and control of the car?

Sometimes you find yourself in the shop before you realise you’re maskless. You wonder why people are staring at you and taking a particularly wide berth as you peruse the less frequented shelves in search of soya sauce and mixed herbs. When it dawns on you that you are unmasked it’s like discovering your fly is wide open. To make matters worse, there is no place and no way to discreetly rectify the mortifying costume malfunction.

I was standing at the coffee machine in a local emporium a number of days ago when a rather corpulent man beside me, who was waiting for his skinny latté to emerge, said, “I see you’re not a fan of the auld masks?” It was then it dawned on me that I was pandemically naked. Emitting an expletive that would have singed a hole in any face covering, I abandoned my half-filled, regular Americano and dashed back to the car.

Returning to the shop, masked to the eyeballs, I met my coffee comrade on his way out. “You didn’t go all the way back to the car, did you?” he asked, “there was no need, I could have given you a loan of mine.”

I’m afraid we’re in for a long haul and a few more unsettled spells before we shake this thing off.

First published in the Farming Independent, Tuesday, October 27th 2020

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