A 2018 recipient of the British Columbia Writer’s Award in Canada, James W. Wood’s work has appeared in leading journals around the world, including The Times Literary Supplement (UK), The Boston Review (USA), The Fiddlehead (Canada), Poetry Review (UK), and others. Wood has authored six books of poetry, including Building a Kingdom: New and Selected Poems, 1989-2019 (High Window Press, UK, 2019), and short fiction has appeared in Canada, the US, India, Turkey, and the UK. He has been nominated or shortlisted for nine literary awards, including the Bridport Prize and T.S.Eliot Prize. http://www.der-jimmelwriter.com
By James W. Wood
The train drew to a standstill at Waverley Station and Harry thought back to his time in Edinburgh. Back when he’d started a Ph.D. that even then he felt he’d never finish.
Harry met Jane not long after he’d arrived here. Jane was a third-year undergraduate studying French. Harry had already graduated and done two years at an engineering firm in Derby before deciding corporate life wasn’t for him. So he headed North with a grant from the British government to do his Doctorate in materials science at Edinburgh.
Edinburgh had breathed new life into him. Caffeine for the soul in every angle of Edinburgh’s Old Town, the way statues jutted up in parks or where the streets crossed, unexpectedly, the afternoon sun running down those long alleyways running from the Royal Mile deep into the Old Town’s marrow.
When they got together, Jane couldn’t have been more different to Harry. Where Harry was unshaven, unprivileged, “normal” in every sense of that word, Jane came from a background of unshowy favour that spoke of real money. Horses and a five-acre small-holding; good A-levels from a public school in Northamptonshire, then studying languages (French and Spanish) at Edinburgh. She lived with friends in one of those spacious New Town apartments, ceilings so tall you could house a second family above door height and not be inconvenienced.
Just eighteen months later, Harry couldn’t wait to get away from the city he’d once praised for its beauty and calm. Jane was in her final undergraduate year and he was only halfway through his Ph.D., but he was done with academia and wanted to take time to travel and think. But Jane was ready to settle down. So she stayed and he left. And now, fifteen years later, he was back to visit her. To try to understand what went wrong? To pick up threads? Both possible. But maybe there was no real reason at all. Perhaps this visit was another of those random incidents in our lives from which our futures spring.
Harry got out of the train, marvelling at the changes time had wrought on the old Victorian station. No more cars belching smoke: apart from a circling taxi rank, they’d been banned. The electronic boards indicating ARRIVALS AND DEPARTURES were replaced with slick LED screens joisted above every platform and in that space where the massive electronic board used to be. And the shops – so many more. Shops selling everything from sandwiches to sushi, board games to condoms, drink, and books. Everything you might need for your journey, and more. It seemed like everything was for sale now, even the old grey buildings surrounding the station.
Harry walked over to the taxi rank and waited. Yes, he could have walked to Jane’s place: it wasn’t that far. But the steps up to Princes Street, then the uphill path to George Square before the descent to Clarendon Street felt like too much after the flight from Bangkok to London, then the train up here. No doubt he’d stop at the Clarendon for at least one pint of IPA before he saw her. God knows, he’d need it if her emails were anything to go by. She sounded so happy and fulfilled, he’d need a few drinks just to bear the joy.
His turn came and he opened the taxi door, giving the driver Jane’s address. He looked exactly the same as drivers had when he was a student here. As the taxi got into gear and moved off, Harry thought again about Jane’s emails. They gave every indication of being overwhelmingly enthusiastic, constantly mentioning how “happy” she was in her marriage to Francis, a stockbroker, and their three children. Harry was always suspicious of people who declared their own happiness: the happy people have no need to tell others how happy they are. Jane was Francis’ third wife. She had been heartbroken when Harry left Edinburgh, and – Harry guessed – there’d been a few disappointments after that as well. Then Francis came along – ten years older and twice divorced – and they settled down together.
Credit to Jane, she’d made a go of it, Harry supposed. Ten years of marriage and three kids. And here she was, thirty-seven and a mother of three. And Harry? Hit the wrong side of forty last year, an itinerant engineer working contracts all over the world, from Dubai to Dar-es-Salaam. The buckets of tax-free cash from these contracts meant he never needed to work again, but none of it satisfied him. No house, no wife, no kids, no car: not for nothing does traditional Jewish wisdom have it that a man is not a man until he has built a house, had a child and bought a vineyard. Harry still felt like he was twenty-three – only his body, hairline, and birth certificate said otherwise.
The taxi crawled up Waverley Approach towards the lights, the imposing bulk of the North British Hotel to the left, the clock tower at the Balmoral Hotel, which always ran five minutes fast to stop you from missing your train, on the right. On a whim, Harry leaned forward and asked the driver to take him down to the Scottish Parliament, then back up the Royal Mile.
“While I’m here, I might as well get the tour.”
“If ye want, big man.”
The radio blared a phone-in featuring has-been footballers arguing about the merits of the front players at Heart of Midlothian and Hibernian, two big local football clubs. The discussion droned on as the cab cut right below the empty bulk of the neo-Grecian monument on Calton Hill – a monument to Edinburgh’s genius which, fittingly, was never finished – and down towards the jumbled white lozenges of the Scottish Parliament. As the cab bounced over the cobbles, Harry tried to imagine what Jane would look like now. Wrinkled? Tired? Or lean and energetic, devoted to maintaining her health, a layered cut-and-dye job hiding her increasingly grey hair, tasteful, demure clothing completing her look?
Harry laughed to himself as the taxi turned the corner and drove at the requisite twenty miles per hour in front of the Scottish Parliament. He was fantasising about a woman he’d chosen to leave almost two decades ago. Fantasising from loneliness and desperation. He probably meant no more to her than the others who came before him, or those there may have been between himself and Francis the husband. He glanced at his gleaming Swiss watch. Subconsciously, Harry might have chosen to wear this expensive number with its tiny diamonds and polished onyx face just to impress Jane.
It had just gone half-past four, and he was expected at Jane’s house for five. That pale Northern sun he remembered dwindled over the rooftops of the Parliament buildings, its light studded by small dark clouds that presaged later rain. No doubt he would get to see Jane’s kids as they ate their tea as part of a “see what you could have had” gesture from her, before big Frank came home from work and they drank meaty gin and tonics while Jane put the kids to bed, followed by dinner.
“Are ye just wantin’ back to the address you gave me, aye?”
The driver looked at Harry in the rear-view mirror. Harry remembered what little he’d known of the local dialect.
“Just launch me at the Grassmarket, bud, and I’ll walk from there.”
The driver nodded and wheeled the car around the other side of the Scottish Parliament, heading for a small cobbled road Harry knew well behind the Royal Mile. A couple of hundred yards up this road, Harry leaned forward, motioning for the driver to stop.
Harry handed the driver a generous tip and got out. He walked through an alleyway to the Royal Mile. He was in that dead zone before the John Knox house, the last bit of the Royal Mile not to be overtaken with tourist tat-shops, pubs, and restaurants with plastic menus in six languages outside them. As Harry made his way up the Mile, he came across the statue of Robert Ferguson, poet and contemporary of Burns. Dead at twenty-four, at his death, Ferguson was considered as Burns’s equal for his lyrical verse. And now? Burns: the toast of every Rugby-club gentleman, pension-padded professor, and pseudo-Scot – but Ferguson? Completely forgotten.
Forgetting and remembering troubled Harry. As he grew older, he found it hard to distinguish between the two, memory jumbling with imagination or fantasy. It might be like that with Jane, he thought. He smiled to himself and touched his fingertips to the cold bronze likeness of Ferguson. The brass figure of the prematurely dead eighteenth-century poet remained a brass figure, impassive under his touch, unmolested by Harry’s presence. Then Harry crossed the street and ducked into another of the long, dark passageways that led from the Royal Mile to the Cowgate – the ancient lower street used to bring farm animals into sales at the Grassmarket hundreds of years ago.
Here the vibe was much as Harry remembered: student halls of residence, still with their grey stucco frontages. Dive bars advertising cheap shots and pints with the kind of gaudy neon signs that speak to the preoccupations of the under-25s: drinking and getting laid. Harry lit a cigarette as he walked jauntily up the uneven pavement towards the Grassmarket, a gentle breeze blowing towards him. As he approached the medieval market square he thought of the generations who had lived and died here: James Connelly, Irish Revolutionary hero, born here in “little Ireland” under the arches of the Grassmarket in 1868 and executed after the 1916 Easter rising; Mary King, an ordinary woman who had given her name to the eponymous street buried deep beneath the Royal Mile; and the countless generations of others who had been born, grown, eaten, drank, grown sick and died here among these tremendous granite pillars and cobbles.
Harry finished his cigarette as he came to the Grassmarket, grinding out the butt under his heel around the spot where he remembered an American student died. A Nigerian drug dealer, driving too fast, shot round the corner just as the American was crossing the road. That happened back when Harry lived here – he remembered the student died two weeks later in hospital. And the drug dealer? Probably in prison. Or dead. But these streets, these buildings, remained in place even though the last traces of either of those men had been washed away from the world. Their parents’ memories of them would have faded until they were just snatches of voice, flickers of memory, and pictures mingled with wishful fantasies of what might have become of the sons they’d once cherished and held as babies, watched grow from mewling child to man.
Harry walked past the drinking fountain and monument to the Protestant martyrs at the West side of the Grassmarket. As well as a market, this was the place the people of Edinburgh congregated for public executions centuries ago. Death by hanging, disembowelment, or “drawing” – being cut to pieces, then pulled apart by horses. Harry imagined the bureaucrats reading out the sentences, the crowds baying, the priests intoning their rituals for the dead. And now? Traffic and cars and tourists. But it wasn’t all death: for centuries, farmers, bakers, and tradespeople came here to ply their wares, settle cattle and sheep, buy cheeses, eggs, fish, milk, and cloth from each other. The last witch to be burned at the stake in Scotland suffered her final moments here, on the same few metres of the earth now populated by pubs, coffee shops, juice bars, and rare book dealers.
Harry’s eye wandered to the juice bar on the corner of Victoria Street and the Grassmarket. He went over and sat down outside, ordering an espresso. Something to pick him up against the late afternoon chill of Edinburgh’s spring. As he waited for his drink, he remembered this was the spot where he’d first told Jane he loved her. How her face had gone a little red, then she had cupped his cheeks in her hands and said she loved him too. Then he’d leaped up from their table impulsively and bought her a pair of earrings he couldn’t possibly afford from the jewelers’ up Victoria street. And Harry remembered how they’d made love that night: with an intensity, a physicality they were never to repeat. How willingly she had tried to please him: how tender he’d been. After that day, nothing in their lives together ever seemed as good again. Though they remained a couple for another year, their shared life became a slow descent into normality and regularity, the intensity of that day and night galling slowly to cinders, then ash.
Normality and regularity did not sit well with Harry back then at twenty-seven years old. Nor afterward: as Harry sipped his espresso and smoked another cigarette, he thought how the whole of his life had been an anti-climax after that moment. Far from opening the door into a new realm, the moment they said their “I love yous” became a herald of ongoing decline, a soft sift into emotional oatmeal that grew colder as the years went by. For years since, Harry stared in dumb wonder at the increasingly large cheques companies handed him, tax-free, for handling a few tricky questions about water pipelines or waste systems in desert environments. Whereas he’d once avidly reached for cartons of cigarettes and the most expensive cognacs in his frequent trips through duty-free, now he hardly drank. Likewise, he had not had a stable relationship for years – ten years, in fact – and the masseuses and bar-girls he picked up on holiday in South-East Asia bored him.
All of which explained why he was here to see Jane. He wanted to get back to that time when everything was right, but going wrong. To try to stop them from going wrong. Put things right somehow. And he was late to meet her and would be even more late by the time he got to her house. Harry walked up Victoria Street, the tourists thronging the bars and cafes around him even though it was a good few months before their numbers would reached a zenith in August’s Edinburgh Festival. He passed the jewelers where he’d bought Jane those earrings and reached the top of Victoria Street. Then he turned right and walked towards the taxi rank outside a Swedish-themed bar and a Doner Kebab shop.
He stopped when he was a little way over the bridge that forded the Cowgate one hundred feet below him. This bridge marked the entrance to the Grassmarket, used in times past by the royal courtiers and bourgeois who lived on the Royal Mile to avoid the lower orders living in the middens and squalor of the Grassmarket – directly beneath the spot where Harry now stood on the bridge. He thought about Jane again, about the image of her legs running away from him after he’d shouted at her to go and get whatever it was she had forgotten when they were late for a party. Her face in repose when she was sleeping, her hands gently curling, the long, delicate fingers stretched out across her chest which rose and fell in rhythm with her breath. He remembered her face in tears when he told her he was leaving – though he never told her it was finished, and they promised each other that day they would stay together, somehow she already knew inside her. And so it proved six months later. She ended it with a letter telling Harry she’d met someone else – and Harry had celebrated his freedom by going out, getting drunk, and having sex with a Ghanaian prostitute behind a chibuku bar in Accra.
As Harry thought about Jane’s sweetness, her innocence, his eye looked down to the tourists scurrying towards the restaurants and bars of the Grassmarket, their feet stepping where pigs and cows had once been brought, tethered and sold for slaughter. He imagined the tourists cramming the bars later on in the evening, eating and drinking and relieving themselves and laughing and flirting, then going home to make love and sleep: much like the animals who once populated the same space. He crossed to the other side of the bridge, still some hundred metres distant from the taxi rank. He could see the rank was empty of the cab he would need to take him to Jane’s place in the New Town.
He turned to gaze West over Calton Hill, saw the sun starting to sink as it had done for millennia and would go on for many more, the clouds still scudding in front of it, the deep blue of the North Sea in the far distance. And he pictured Jane’s face again, crying when he left her and felt nothing had been the same since that day they had declared their love – nothing. Not his work, not making love, not the way water tasted, not food or drink. Everything he’d known since then seemed diminished as if the promise of life had been greater than its experience.
Then Harry looked down below the other side of the bridge. He saw a beer garden filled with students getting drunk, two of them – a dark-haired boy and a blonde girl – kissing passionately. He heard their raucous laughter echo off the garden’s stone walls and it sounded like they had found a hollow spot in the world where laughter and tears would echo around forever, lasting, vital, eternal – not dead and gone in seconds to leave only empty, sterile memories. He dropped his backpack on the pavement and pulled himself up on to the bridge’s ledge, his guts churning at the vertiginous edge before him even as his brain warmed to the idea of falling. Anyway, it was too late for him to turn up at Jane’s house now.