(It’s a long read today. I’m out walking the city of Edinburgh with my nephew and you’re more than welcome to tag along.)
We tramped about the city in the rain in search of hot chocolate. Rule number one (for one needs to establish rules at the outset when spending time with a thirteen-year-old boy, otherwise who knows where it will end) was that when the time came to purchase food and drink (another point about thirteen-year-old boys is that they need to be fed as regularly as Edinburgh parking meters) we would buy only at an independent café: no Starbucks, no Costa. Rule number two was that we were going to look at and notice things as we walked: take in the ordinary; examine the city; learn from what was around us.
Like right here, I say, stopping. Read this. We are on Roxburgh Street where a terrace of fine-looking Georgian houses – mostly university faculty offices – stand forlorn, quiet and empty. Attached to the wall of a house – one that says it is the Physics Institute of the University of Edinburgh – is a round, blue plaque with the name Peter Ware Higgs on it and a date, bracketed (1929–). Not dead yet, but getting on. Underneath the name it says: “Theoretical physicist and Nobel Prize laureate for physics. Wrote the papers which proposed the Higgs boson here in 1964.” Well that’s a factoid and a half! Do you know who he is? I ask my teenage buddy. He doesn’t, though he humours me. Who? I duck a proper answer. He’s a physics dude who’s dead smart and dead famous and dead important because of what he discovered, but he’s not dead. Luckily, the thirteen-year-old presses me no further, thus my scant knowledge of the Higgs boson theorem is not laid bare.
Where are you taking me? He asks. Here. We’ve only walked a few paces from where Mr Higgs made his initial breakthrough, but already we’re at Drummond Street. We’re standing outside a fine, large building; looks like a Victorian convent, or an asylum, or perhaps a hospital. ‘School of Geosciences,’ the notice says. I’m dropping you off here. It’s an orphanage-bootcamp for children who refuse home schooling. Your parents gave me the job of depositing you here as they said they couldn’t follow through. And much as I like you, I’m a lot less sentimental about you than they are. You’re being put in that tower up there. I point to a garret. In an instant I am the evil aunt. I think about the magnificent city views he’ll have. I’ll be back for you on February 1st, I tell him. That’s less than a week. Don’t worry about not having a toothbrush; one’s teeth barely get dirty when one doesn’t eat sugar. And, believe me, you’ll get no sugar in there. Come on, he tugs my arm, neither threatened nor impressed by my Cruella Deville impersonation.
Down these steps, I tell him. It is a cut-through to Infirmary Street. One I only take in daylight. High wall either side, festooned with graffiti; a reinforced door is set into the wall and CCTV cameras attached up high. What do you think of my new jeans? He asks. It was the first thing I’d noticed when he’d walked towards me half an hour earlier. I’ve not seen him out of tracksuit bottoms in about a year, so of course I was going to notice. Over-dyes, not baggy but loose, and a big fold up like Kenickie in Grease. They look great, I tell him. These are the wrong shoes, he says. He lifts a foot and stares disconsolately at the runners he’s wearing, then digs in his pocket for his phone. Scrolling, he holds it up to me. I’ve ordered these, they’ll look better. White Nike high-tops with the logo flick in black. Cool, I say. They’re barely different from the ones he’s wearing.
You have pen all down your cheek, I say. He tells me he was trying to draw on his sister but fell on his own sword. Are you going to wash it off? He shrugs. We turn the corner onto Infirmary Street. Ta da! I extend my arms, empresario-like, and there before me, is the independent café I am taking him to. Open on Fridays And Saturdays Only, it says on the window. The drizzle that was falling as we started out has all but gone, the sky is threatening to shed grey for blue. Plan B, I say with confidence, striding on. I have no Plan B in mind; it shall come to me on the hoof.
Quick shimmy onto South Bridge and across onto Chambers Street. Today is all about the side streets, I tell him, leading the way down onto Guthrie Street. We stop to stare in through a side window of Charles Stewart House where a print the size of the wall hangs. What do you think it is? I think it’s cool, he says. That’s one answer. I think it’s a close-up photograph of the glass and painted plaster work of a cupola somewhere in the city. I have lost him. Figuratively and literally. He has wandered off towards Cowgate. It won’t be long before you’re down here partying, I say. Wide eyes, a nod. Shit, he’s so going to be a Stramash sort of kid. Makes me wonder when live music venues like Stramash will ever be open again.
This way. At random, I choose a tiny laneway that he says is private. This is the path to someone’s house. I don’t think we’re allowed. Sure we are, I tell him, not at all sure. It takes me through to a courtyard of flats. Beautiful wrought iron washing line posts stand sentry in the yard. Nothing’s pegged out; it’s been a bad year so far for drying. One tree – I think it’s a cherry – has about twenty bird feeders attached to it. Fat balls are wedged between branches and two bird baths stand like holy water fonts: an altar to nature in the very centre of the Old Town. The lane narrows, so narrow that we must walk in single file. Do you know what you call these little passages? I ask him. Lanes, he says. Close, I say. Path, he says. Close, I say. I don’t know, he says. No, Close is the answer, I say. They are called ‘Closes.’ We’ve come out onto the High Street and we do a quick audit of the names of each Close running off it. I didn’t realise there were so many within such a short space: Old Assembly; Burnets; Covenant; Borthwick’s; Stevenlaw’s. That one’s a Wynd, he says. He’s right. Bell’s Wynd – what’s all that about?
We eschew Fleshmarket Close (which he wants to go down) for Cockburn Street. I have a reason, I tell him. I rather like the furl of Cockburn Street, it’s like a gentle section of a helter-skelter. We stop towards the top, just into the bend. The Milkman, it says over the door. Used to be at the bottom of the street, but they’ve moved up here. Don’t know why I tell him, it’s an irrelevant fact, though he’s taken by it. Means they won’t get flooded when climate change gets worse, he says. I wonder at how young peoples’ minds work. Mr Anderson told us not to read The Milkman, he says. Mr Anderson says it’s scary. It’s Milkman, I tell him (more unnecessary information), and wasn’t Mr Anderson your Primary School teacher? Why’s he telling you about Milkman? (I loved Anna Burns’, Milkman, and it wasn’t scary.) Once again, he has moved on and is looking through the window of The Milkman at what’s on offer. One of those, that one, on the right at the front. But don’t ask for that one, he’ll think I’m weird, that’s just the one I’m hoping for. And hot chocolate. With marshmallows.
I order and stand back to wait for one latte, one hot chocolate, one iced cinnamon bun (the server didn’t select the one at the front on the right), and one cardamom bun. While I wait, thirteen-year-old crosses the road to check his bank balance. (I know, it amazes me to even type that sentence.) He returns, looking pleased with himself. I’ve more money than I thought I had. He zips his card back into the front pouch of his Royal Blue Napapijri rain jacket. Where does it come from, I ask? He shrugs. Are you on Rishi’s furlough scheme? Another shrug. Are you buying? I point my head at the hatch. He walks away, quickly.
Drinks and food in hand, we head back to the High Street, and detour around the back of St. Giles’s Cathedral. We pick out angels and choir boys carved in stone. Bit for a bit, I say, and we swap pieces of bun that are largely the same. Who was Hume? I ask as we pass his statue. He doesn’t know. I set him straight. I know who Deacon Brodie was, he says, as we pass the tavern named after him. He tells me the story in detail, including the part about Deacon Brodie dropping his handkerchief, embroidered with the initials DB. That’s what got him caught in the end, he says.
We stop at Camera Obscura, watch a projection of a dolphin swimming and somersaulting on a wall. It’s kind of mesmerising.
From our viewing point at the Castle Esplanade, the Pentland Hills and the sky have fused together in a pact of white. Look, he points to a sporty Audi with the number plate 53 JINGS. Whoever drives that must be rich, he says (impressed). Whoever drives that must be an eejit, I say (judgemental). I tell him they only say ‘jings’ in Scotland. Five years ago, I didn’t know there was such a word. He looks dubious, sometimes he doesn’t believe me. He’s wise that way.
We have a quick look north to make sure Fife hasn’t gone anywhere. Phew, it’s still there. There follows a long story about Lawrence’s tenth birthday party. We got the train to Fife and camped in Lawrence’s granny’s garden and then we got the train back the next day and then we had to walk from Haymarket to the Meadows and we had to carry our bags. It was awful. For a sporty kid, he doesn’t like walking. That’s why today is a minor miracle.
Patrick Geddes steps is the start of us winding our way home. Rare is the day when you don’t meet another soul on Patrick Geddes steps; today was one of those rare days, although they have become less rare in the last nine months. Down we go, onto an empty Grassmarket where we discuss whether Mary’s Milk Bar (situated there) or Smoove(situated on the Canongate) sell the tastier ice-cream. A question to be answered when both places re-open. Thirteen-year-old tells me he has taste-tested supermarket chicken wraps. Sainsbury’s wins with a score of 9.8 out of 10.
What goes down must go up. Up The Vennel, past Flodden Wall, turn for final view of castle ramparts. Passers-by are few: a beautiful young man draped in gold chains; an old couple who look delighted with life; a woman walking a silver dog. The light is fading, in full daylight the dog may not be silver. I make the boy stop under the sign that says Miss Jean Brodie’s Steps. His trademark no-smile look is produced for the camera. In the glass-fronted window of Skyscanner, three floors up, is a life-size zebra. Is it life-size? I wouldn’t know. The lights are on in many of the penthouse apartments on the Quartermile. He’s impressed when I tell him I’m buying one– someday. It’s a little dream I have. They are vulgar, flashy and shout, ‘look at me!’ but I like them; that part of me that will not admit to liking 53 JINGS likes them. I will never live there. I will never come into the imaginary money to be able to afford one. I don’t tell thirteen-year-old, as he enjoys my never-to-be-realised dream.
Two weeks ago, those courts were full, he says. Today no one is playing tennis; they are covered with snow that had melted then frozen. The rain is coming on more heavily. My jeans stick to my thighs. He tells me about bubble tea. By the end of his account, I still do not know what bubble tea is. A crossed-wires conversation about consumption: I’m on climate change, he’s on what he eats each day.
Ask me the time, he says, I always get it right. I ask him the time. Four twenty, he says. I click my phone on: 16:36. He slaps his forehead with the palm of his hand. I usually guess within a minute or two. It wasn’t a bad guess, I say. That was fun, I say. The days are stretching out, I say. Do it again next week, I say?