He’s carrying a small backpack that is far from full, hardly looks as though it holds enough for an overnight stay. For a moment, I wonder if he’s a runaway. He looks and sounds too calm for a runaway (as if I’d know).

‘I’m going to see my grandparents,’ he volunteers, mind-reading. I am to learn that it is characteristic for him to tell me things I’ve not asked about. ‘Loanhead. Do you know where that is?’ I find it on a map on my phone and we examine its location, scrolling out and scrolling in. He nods. ‘That’s where I thought it was.’ He makes it sound like a lost sock.

He tells me his name, asks for mine, then repeats my name like one might a foreign or complicated word. ‘Your accent sounds like my PE teacher’s. He’s from Northern Ireland too.’

I ask his age. ‘What age do you think I am?’ He sounds proud, a giveaway that he looks older than he is. ‘Sixteen,’ I say, and I’ve done the right thing by adding a year or two to what I’ve guessed. ‘Fourteen,’ he says, sitting taller in his seat.

Just after Aviemore, he falls asleep for almost an hour, then wakes with a start, concerned he might have snored. ‘Like I did at a sleepover with the boys recently, they slagged me about it.’ He had been snoring, soft snores, like a stream running over stones. ‘You made no sound,’ I said.

He falls quiet to eat a cold macaroni pie, then dusts himself of crumbs and resumes the chat. ‘Edinburgh is rich. Everyone wears Ralph Lauren in Edinburgh. My Dad told me to put my phone and wallet into my inside zip pocket when I get off the bus at Edinburgh because even though it’s rich, they’ll be some that aren’t. Elgin on a Saturday night is all broken glass and drunks, but it hasn’t as many Neds as Glasgow. Do you know what a Ned is?’

We pull off the main road at Pitlochry and I ask him to mind my bag. I’m going to brave the downstairs toilet while the bus is stationary.

‘The Couch House,’ he says when I return. ‘I’ve never heard of anywhere called the Couch House.’ He points to a big old stone house, now a small hotel, name over the door. I nod, and something seems to click with him. ‘I’m a bit dyslexic. My English teacher was off on the sick. Her replacement gave me a good mark for my essay, she said not to worry about the spelling, but then the real teacher came back and marked me down. It was an essay about football. I like Hearts. Do you think I could walk to Tynecastle from where the bus drops me? How long do you think it would take?’ We go back to the map on my phone and discount this as an option. ‘I want to be a mechanic. I’m going to join the Navy. They’ll train me. In Southampton. Won’t have to take the bus; they fly you down.’

He calls his mum (in Elgin), then his dad (in Aberdeen, ‘works offshore’), and he update them in turn on his progress. Each time he breaks off his conversation mid-way to turn to me and confirm our location. ‘Somewhere in Fife,’ he says to his Dad. ‘The outskirts of Edinburgh,’ he tells his mother.

At the bus station, he tucks his phone and wallet into an inside zip pocket, just like his dad had instructed, and the lady on the information desk tell him the 37 bus, outside Marks & Spencer on Princes Street, will take him to Loadhead.

I walk with him some of the way there. I notice he looks around him the same way I used to when I moved here six years ago: all fresh-eyed awareness, in awe and appreciation of Edinburgh’s illustriousness on this mildest of winter’s days. He reminds me not just to look, but to see.

My companion and I shake hands at the corner of South St Andrew Street and go our separate ways forever.

2 thoughts on “Companion

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