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The International Writers Magazine: Scotland

Tetsuhiko Endo

Edinburgh is all types of grey.  All the greys in the rainbow.  Monochromatic splendour: Granite grey, flagstone grey, rainy day grey, cold winter grey, fog grey, dawn grey, ghost grey, North Sea grey, Earl grey, gray grey.  Take your photaes in black and white because you won't be able to tell the difference.  If that's a problem for you, well, go to Cancun and stop wasting my damn time.  As for all the rest you's, come swim with me in the Old Smelly. 

Watch out for the ghosts – here be spirits.  Not counting the 20 quid tours or the wax museums or out of work stage actors shambling around in costumes and face paint, this is a place bathed in the shadows of its past.  Whispers swirl through the cobblestone streets stinging your cheeks and freezing your ears.  They whistle inside churches and castles, echo off crumbling stones and twist into little cyclones like dry autumn leaves. Chase them down dark passages, deep into the stone maze of the city built upon itself.  They elude you at every turn with the mischief of children at play flitting around corners or disappearing down hidden closes, forever one step ahead.  But keep on, my friend, don't be deterred by the shenanigans of the dead for they're an ornery bunch.  You'll find them again when you least expect it and resume your chase through the perpetual twilight. 

Every corner reveals new delights, every passage forks into new options.  Go right, left, up down, and don't miss a chance to detour…until, as if awakening from a dream, you look around to find yourself lost and alone while thick clouds like puffs of dirty wool rush by overhead.

The winds always blow cold and clammy from the sea steeping the place an ageless brine.  It is a bouillabaisse of smog, runoff and melancholy spiced liberally with sea salt, malted barley and a pinch of something wild and peppery blown in from those big, empty Scottish fields.  It soaks in and chills you, makes your steps heavier and sharpens each breath to the edge of a sigh.  The days are bleaker, the nights darker.  Solitude tippy-toes behind you, closing with every block as you wander through the deep, jagged chiaroscuro of the Old Town, the lonely sound of your footsteps echoing off the MC Escher architecture.

But there is laugher in the dark – short reports that spill from the open doors of lambent pubs that shine like pirate treasure.  Look in the window street urchin style and see the grinning people crowded around the gleaming hardwood bar quaffing pints, sipping wine, and starting to talk just a little too loudly.  Famous drunks, these strange, northern folk.  See how they smile as if they have never known winter?  Don't stand outside and stare like a tourist!  Go in.  Go in because the damp's long fingers can't reach you there.  The light and the laughter burn off the eddying gloom, turn it out and beat in back into the street, holding it at bay for as long as the taps flow. 

Inside the murmur becomes a din, Oasis on the juke box, video gambling machines ring and jingle…. and the smell, oh the smell.  Hops and fried goodies, eau de steak pie, stale beer, vinegar and ketchup, scones and sticky toffee pudding grumble in the hollow of your stomach.  But no food for the hungry when there is drinking to be done: Tenants or Stella – the quintessential Scotsman's conundrum.  National pride vs. foreign quality.  Have a whisky if you like, but you'll have to either join the pensioners at one end of the of the bar, all tweeds and snaggle toothed glares or those grinning Americans to the right, cloistered away in their corner pontificating on the authenticity of their 'discovery'.  Best to avoid both and grab a lager, its safe, its tasty, and it comes in a pint with a respectable head that never goes flat to leave you with something that looks like a bucket of dehydrated pish.

By the third or fourth, it doesn't matter anyway – you're charged up and ready to make merry.  Dive back into the night, brace yourself for that first lung full of brine, feel it seep down your collar even as your shoulders tense to head it off.  But wait, not slithering in so easy this time, eh?   Your alcohol aura beats it back valiantly.  Make haste, now, the remedy is fleeting, and there is much yet to see.  Follow the whispers: searching, searching, always searching in this city as if its secrets will be revealed if you just look hard enough.  Ah, you should know better ya wee fookin drunk.
Pay the ten quid for the club, past the Eastern European bouncers who are probably nice guys in their free time and…welcome to Hell. From icy cold to sweating hot in seconds, bodies move like Sodom and Gomorrah, now if you can just make out a face.  Woah, that's a lot of makeup, bonus points for the short skirt though, shame about that extra weight.  It's necessary for the winters, like a seal. Not fat, maybe, but something torpid about it, sallow in the strobe lights, a strange crook to the eyes, a small gene pooled skew of the features that is either enchanting or nightmarish. 

The ghosts are quiet here in the Cathedral of Kanye West, Westlife and DJ Westwood.  WWDJ?  Drink and dance, no doubt.  Your free mixed drink goes down the hatch like water and you start to miss those mischievous echoes.  What did you say your name was?  Well, nice to meet you too.  There's a girl under all that makeup and she digs you, stranger.  Think she said she was a hairdresser…or maybe just in beauty school, the lowlighted hair is the give away.  She talks pretty, rolling her 'r's' over rrrazor sharrrp rrrocks every time she leans in close to tell you something because you can't understand a damn thing over that music.  Conversation is shouted and never more than half understood, the mysteries of the world contained in all the words swallowed by the tumult.  Doesn't matter though, you're both driving to the same end, kissing before you know it – Gable and Leigh with everything burning down behind you – Scottish girl eh?  Check that one off your list and hurry out the back before she asks for your number. 

That's what cold feels like.  It puts a hop in your step and reminds you that death is not so far off.  Follow those whispers and try not to stagger like the dead because the bars close at four and you need a final drink to stave off that ever-gathering gloom.  Somewhere far below the castle lit up in the night like the gates of heaven, through the low door, back into warmth, laughter, cheer. 

The Barmaid is Polish, certified peaches and cream, but you know she hears that from every drunk loser who bangs his head coming through the door so whisper those sweet everything's to your pint. The end draws near, the acqua vitae drains from your veins, evaporating into ether, replacing immortality with a dull fragility, mortality regained with just a little less time on the clock.  Can't go home like this, can you?  Get one more round in for all your new best friends.  It won't hurt till the morning when the light and the laughter have gone and your room is icy cold, chafing your skin raw where it peeks out from under the too short duvet.  You need a pish and a drink, but your head says nay to even lifting a leg out of bed, much less stumbling down the hall to a communal bathroom.  So hangover swagger to the sink, turn on the warm tap –always the warm tap, as a Scotsman once said – and let it loose.  When you've washed away the medicinal smell of alcohol pee, change taps and take a drink.  The water is colder and sweeter than French kissing an Eskimo princess.  That's the taste of hope…that the hangover will pass, the shadows will recede and the coal skies will lighten to grey once again.               

© Tetsuhiko Endo Dec 2008

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