‘Look, darling, her tee-shirt says we can ask her a question.’ She nudged her husband in the ribs, ‘I don’t have one, do you?’ He didn’t either. She looked disappointed, they walked on and I loitered some more. Not so tongue-tied was the uniformed bus driver on his way down the hill to work. ‘Are you any good with tonight’s lottery numbers?’ That’s the spirit, I thought, immediately warming to a man who doesn’t waste an opportunity to ask a question. I gave it my best shot: birth-date, house number, card PIN. But he just laughed and told me he didn’t play; not since a man he knew won three million one Saturday and then his wife dropped dead the following Saturday. Well, that shut me up. The two of us stood in silence for a moment, pondering life’s ironies and the radically different meanings of the phrase, ‘having one’s number come up’.
My spot that morning was at the top of The Mound, from where I could almost – but not quite – see the castle. Quickly, I learned the most common question of the day was to be, ‘How do I get to the castle from here?’ Sometimes I think people just stopped for a breather, an excuse to rest. Although it was a gift of a day for a month that can often feel autumnal, the combination of Edinburgh’s hills and unexpected sun were exhausting the crowds. The questions came in waves. Perhaps it works the same way as an empty café: as soon as you go in and take a seat near the window, the others tables are sure to fill up. So it was, no sooner had one person stopped to ask a question than another would stand behind, patiently waiting with theirs. Most queries related to the immediate area: how to get to a festival venue that the questioner was standing next to, not seeing the wood for the trees (we’ve all done it). But a few wanted to stray from the beaten path – to Dean Village, to Stockbridge, or the Botanics. A friendly Australian and his wife, in matching Hawaiian shirts, wanted to go to the Edinburgh Dungeon. ‘I’m going to leave him there,’ she said, smiling at him adoringly. Hot on their heels was the harassed man pushing a buggie who asked me, ‘Can you tell me how to stop babies crying?’ I assumed the questioner was the father, but his look was definitely notan adoring one. A particularly stylish Asian lady was keen to find an outdoor food market where she could buy good artisanal chocolate. I told her I couldn’t be sure on the chocolate but I knew where she could get excellent fudge, which is probably akin to offering pale ale to a whisky aficionado. She nodded kindly, but I could tell, despite her willowy frame, that it was chocolate alone she wanted. Two young women from Edmonton in Canada needed directions to the Palace of Holyroodhouse. Apparently there is a district in Edmonton also called Holyrood and they reckoned the name-twinning might give them a by to have tea with a royal, should any be passing through. As they say where I come from, I didn’t put them past their notion.
Of course there is down time when one stands on street corners, time when, despite the smiling and nodding, the eye-catching and hellos, it seems that nobody has a question, that everyone knows where they are going, that all who wander are not lost. This was the perfect time to people watch: count the Ray-Bans and floaty dresses, sandals and shorts, pram pushers and tied-on new babies and fixate upon a man whose eyewear confused me. It took me a moment to work out why: he had one square frame and one round frame – looking at him felt like I’d been asked to pat my head and rub my belly at the same time, it did not compute. I observed a startlingly large number of people treat traffic lights with reckless abandon. They stopped in the middle of the road to check the map on their phone and they stepped out into path of taxis to get a better selfie angle of the castle behind them. The silent disco-goers – they’re the worst; they put on headphones and not only lose their inhibitions (which is lovely, fun, energising to watch) but they also, it seems to me, lose all sense of self-preservation.
I have enjoyed being met with enthusiasm and wonder, that antidote to world-weariness we all so need. On Waverley Bridge I was directing an older Canadian couple to a pharmacy, when the man swivelled on his heel and said, in a tone of voice as if a star ship had just landed, ‘What isthat?’ It prompted me to look up at the Balmoral Hotel with fresh eyes. After a couple of years of living here I have forgotten how splendid it is. I think it is especially breath taking because it sits alone, which magnifies its grand scale. ‘Could we get bowls of soup there?’ he asked, with an endearing dollop of innocence and excitement. I assured him that he could get whatever he wanted there as long as his wallet was fat enough. A bereavement support worker stopped to check the location of a venue showing a play about a wake. She looked apologetically to her husband. ‘Busman’s holiday,’ she explained, ‘I’m always dragging him along to cheery things about death!’ The best question of the festival so far, though, has been: ‘My goat and I are going to the airport, are we better going by bus or by tram?’ Sure enough, he had with him a well behaved goat on a lead. I suggested the bus might be a better option, as it was just across the way and that it may be more suited to the goat, expert as I am (not) on goat travel. On the basis of this advice he set off for the bus, lifting little ‘billy’ and draping him around his neck like a fur stole, so they could safely cross Waverley Bridge. Normal fringe frolics.
Playing this role has left me feeling positive and assured that in this enormously busy city, stuffed to capacity, everyone jostling for attention, that people are overwhelmingly peaceful, happy in their lives and rubbing along nicely in this unpredictable world.