Monday, 18 April 2016

Oh, Edinburgh


There are many things I love about Edinburgh. It is big enough to be a city; small enough to be called a village. You can be sure to bump into someone you know within ten minutes of leaving your door… though you can’t go anywhere without being spotted. Here, the rule of six degrees of separation is reduced to two, and the myth that August is the month of Festival is scotched by the fact that in every month there is a Festival of some sort.

Sometimes I long for the anonymity of London, my ‘home city;’ sometimes I feel homesick for its vibrancy.  Yet here I am a 15-minute cycle ride from the seaside or the city centre; I have a 650 million year-old volcano at the end of my street and scores of galleries dotted all over the city crammed full of contemporary art. I have more friends than I have ever had, and never stop meeting many more fascinating, inspiring and beautiful people every week.

When I see floating down the various social media feeds articles or blogs about how lucky we are, or addicted to, or spoiled by Edinburgh I am inevitably drawn to click on the links such as this.

There is something twee, but undeniably meaty about a city that can voice a protest through crochet, decorate a post-box in wrapping paper, and name a street that looks – on a map – like a crude cock-picture “Bellenden Gardens.” We have a statue of a poet that is frequently bedecked with foliage or knit-ware, and our main Railway Station – Waverley – is the only train station in the world to have been named after a novel.

Celebrating the 200th anniversary of our celebrated writer’s achievements, my friends at the City of Literature recently transformed Waverley Station with temporary floor-art and permanent window/glass installations featuring quotations from Walter Scott’s novels. Edinburgh didn’t need to be put on a literature map – it is the first designated UNESCO City of Literature – but there’s no denying the inspiration it provides the local writing community.


I’m sure that ‘yarn-bombing’ goes on elsewhere, but when I saw the Robert Fergusson statue wearing leg-warmers, I knew I could get a story out of it. But it wasn’t until Waverley Station was bedecked with Scott-quotes that I knew what truly informed the piece I wanted to write. First off, it was the writing on the floor: “O, what a tangled web we weave, when first we practice to deceive”

Next, I saw the glass pane with this on it. Have found myself personally woven into a tangled web of appalling and tawdry deception, it was easy for me to transpose my experience into a web of surreal fiction. As we know, fiction is a loose term, and a large part of this story is painfully real. But the loosely gothic element in which the romantic ideas of the narrator become unbelievable – even to him – is a wee nod to Edinburgh’s literary heritage.

 
 


Revenge, the Sweetest Morsel?

 

 

It’s hard to say where it all began. It was spring; that I know: I remember how colour-co-ordinated it was. The walking statue of Robert Fergusson outside Canongate Kirk had been given a lovely pair of leg-warmers. The pinks and purples perfectly matched the blossom that had just appeared, you could say, overnight – that, after all, is how these ‘appearances’ came into being. Obviously, whoever did this acted at night-time to avoid detection. Eluding CCTV cameras was easy enough, and even if the words around the base of the statue were true – ‘Auld Reikie…kens beneath the moon’ – neither poet nor City were going to yield their secret very soon.

            That day, as if in subconscious acknowledgement of the event’s significance, I sat in the window of the coffee shop opposite, my view obscured from time to time by the open-top tour-buses that stop at the church. ‘The Canongate,’ the tour-guides announce from the top-deck, ‘So-called because the Canons used to walk up and down between here and the Abbey at Holyrood.’ Between buses, the usual number of tourists and passers-by stopped to take pictures next to the poet’s statue. They would emulate his walking gait, and on this day many held a posy of blossom to imitate Fergusson’s other adornment.
 
 

            None of them seemed fazed by the knitted leg-warmers. To them, it was no more than the quirky addition of a traffic-cone on a statue’s head, or dressing one of the Gormley statues in the Water of Leith in a pink bikini. Most pranks of this sort are short-lived – only the Duke of Wellington by Glasgow’s Museum of Modern Art seems unable to shift his dunce’s hat. Our poet was soon stripped of his stripy clothes, just as the blossom fell as pink mulch in the springtime rain. As I said, these overnight occurrences are gone in the same blink of darkness. Nature takes its course. Blossom and leaf sneak into being; new blades push up through soil, and sap and snowdrop seem to surge from nowhere… but they don’t just appear. They evolve.

            I’d like to say that love does the same. You don’t simply wake up in the morning all in love. The person you’ve been secretly admiring in the office, or chatting with over coffee, or – if you’re persistent – been texting prolific compliments to (and from) doesn’t suddenly appear in your bed and offer the best sex you’ve ever had. That’s not how it happens, even if you believe in love at first sight. That’s how it happens if you want a casual encounter. That’s how it happens in the movies. Or, if you have another agenda, that’s how it happens when you want to get something…

 

                   

 

            We did all the things that new lovers do: the furtive glances led to casual coffees; texting became frequent; we’d meet in favourite places. The glances led to kisses; the rapid-fire texts turned suggestive; the places we met became ‘special’ and – finally – we consummated our relationship in a way that no film can. She was, at first, reticent to commit, but I let it pass. On my side, there was a secrecy to which we were both sworn. My position in the University gave her a frisson; me, a vulnerability.

            As summer lingered, I knew time was on my side. If money can’t buy love, it sure as hell can’t buy time. Once, as we sat on newly-mown grass in the Gardens, she suddenly said: ‘I’ve got a secret.’

            ‘Oh?’ I sat up, curious.

            ‘It’s a biggie,’ she added.

            Quietly pleased to be let into her confidence, I said, ‘Go on.’

            ‘I’ve always secretly wanted to have a child. On my own.’

            ‘On your own?’ I pointed out: ‘Impossible!’

            ‘Not so,’ she explained: ‘You can buy the means off the internet.’

            Perplexed, ‘But…’ Touching the fingers of her left hand I said: ‘You’ve got me.’ Her hair dropped over her eyes as she lowered her head.

            ‘I know,’ she replied, a half-smile breaking on her lips as she moved to kiss me: ‘I know.’

            By autumn, it was over. Not a word, explanation or reason. Not a hint of the season which had warmed our bodies was to be seen. I dropped by her flat one evening, but looking through the bare windows saw the room was cold and empty. She was gone.

 

                   

 

            I watched the trees turn rusty. The leaves dis-coloured like greying hair, then fell like Samson’s locks, emptying me of what strength I had enjoyed that summer. God knows how I got through winter, but when I saw those leg-warmers, my heart felt the first tremor of recovery. The following Thursday (the day we habitually would meet) I passed the Poetry Library and saw the first street-tweet. There was a modicum of interest from the librarians, but it wasn’t on the scale of their beautiful paper book-sculptures gifted by that anonymous benefactor.

            The tweets, however, similarly un-authored, were not associated with a ‘real’ (or ‘cyber’ – which is reality to some) twitter account.

 

@streettweets

Grass whispers secrets I've heard,

Trees on a need-to-know basis.

A pavement pronounces loud words

Proud of a sense of stasis.

 

            For obvious reasons she must remain anonymous, but I knew – let’s call her ‘Rebecca’ since it’s a popular name – I knew ‘Rebecca’ was behind it. We had talked about it during the Festival Fringe, when she took photos of the street graffiti advertising venues and shows. ‘Wouldn’t it be fun,’ she said, ‘If someone chalked anonymous verse at various locations in August?’ We agreed, hilarious, although we didn’t come up with any suggestions.

            ‘You don’t take many pictures of people, do you?’ I asked her once. She cagily avoided the question. She had taken a few head-shots apparently – one actor I knew had used her services – and there was a rumour that she had done a few ‘glamour’ shoots at some point, but again my enquiry was met with silence. So that night, in bed, I teased her. ‘I think you’re scared of shooting people in, you know, their natural environment.’ This led to a slight contretemps.

            ‘Are you saying I limit my artistic integrity?’ She snapped at me. ‘I can take pictures of who or what the hell I like!’ She pulled the sheets up around her breasts like a protecting veil.

            ‘No, I didn’t mean that,’ I tried to wriggle out. ‘It’s just you seem to go for inanimate things.’ She reminded me of the expression ‘still life,’ to which I retorted: ‘But your stuff – what I’ve seen – seems more abstract?’

            ‘Are you challenging me?’ she sprang out of bed and grabbed her camera. ‘It’s all about angles,’ she said, smiling with half her mouth. As she clicked random shots I remembered how much of her photography was strangely angular. But these were not the angles she was meaning; it was the tangled web she was weaving. The camera doesn’t lie, but it certainly deceives. I didn’t think a thing as she shot angle after angle. It excited me. When she was done we made love in the sweetest, most complete reconciliation.

            When the street-tweets appeared, in pink and purples on the pavement, I considered taking pictures of them. Something about my memory of ‘Rebecca’ prevented me. To this day I don’t know how many were washed away in the April showers before I’d spotted them. I wasn’t quick enough to catch and write them down, given their self-confessed ephemeral nature:

 

@streettweets

Will I be chalked up for eternity;

as a permanent hint of sublime?

Or like graffiti sprayed on gravel,

be worn away with time?

 

            There was nothing macabre about the verses, nor the yarn-bombs that appeared next. I knew I was being baited. ‘Rebecca’ was nowhere to be seen; she’d left the University without a trace. She had no internet presence (none that I was aware of) and we had no friends in common – not even in Facebook’s cyber-realism. I discovered she’d blocked me anyway, so I posted pictures of the yarn-bombs on my time-line. Only she and I knew the significance: all their locations were situated in our ‘special’ places.

            Our first date was at the Gallery of Modern Art. Sure enough, the Antony Gormley bust sticking out of the tarmac had a pink, quasi-balaclava hat. After our first film-date at the Filmhouse, we hid surreptitiously behind the Mother-and-Child statue, by the cycle-racks on Festival Square and kissed. This was the next victim of guerrilla-knitting: a scarf around the woman’s neck with the ends wrapped around the waists of both figures. I thought the knot had connotations of a noose, but I dismissed such a sinister notion. Next, on the railings opposite a pub we frequented: a spider’s web or, possibly, an intricate cat’s cradle.

            Recalling the chronology of our trysting-locations, another week I went down into Princes Street Gardens. We used to sit together on the grass beyond the Ross Fountain – off the beaten track – drinking red wine out of plastic glasses, eating black olives and kissing until our lips were as purple as the dimming sun.  It took no time for me to find what I was looking for, although it was the voice of an American tourist, asking: ‘Is that a diaper up there?’ I felt my throat close as I stared up. This was large-scale guerrilla activity, not the work of a single person: the cupid-like figure at the top of the fountain was wearing, to translate the American, a nappy.

            How the hell did she get it up there? It seemed too unbelievable to be true. But ‘Rebecca’ was, herself, too good to be true. I began to doubt everything; even my own love for her, since hers seemed to be proving increasingly false. Swallowing hard the feeling I was the butt of an unpleasant joke, I wandered through St Cuthbert’s Churchyard and back to Campus, thinking to myself: ‘Why do fools fall in love?’ Then I did something very foolish. I tweeted pictures of the yarn-bombs, from my University twitter account.

            I really didn’t think any harm would come of it; we had no connections (it seems ‘Rebecca’ had made sure of that.) But the twittersphere is far wider-ranging than the insular world of Facebook, where I was stalker-protected. I hadn’t taken the same precaution with twitter. For that matter, ‘Rebecca’ and I were unwise when it came to other precautions. She told me the name of the pill she was on, and I had no reason to think it was made up or fake. With more of a ‘nocebo’ than placebo I had left myself open in ways I hadn’t imagined.

            In the time it takes for a shutter to open and close, the click of a button marked ‘send’ or the spasm of joy we call a ‘little death,’ a life can be changed for ever. These are the ‘no return’ moments, from which there is no respite either. They haunt you for the rest of your life. My tweeting created a minor storm. Not an earthquake, but the ripples reached wherever ‘Rebecca’ had taken herself away to – and a few others besides. It was the ‘captions’ I tweeted that caused a stir.

 

                        Does anyone ken, beneath the moon,

                        who warmed Rabbie’s legs? Why? When?

 

            Then things started to come out, like a long-gestated secret. I had spent over half a year wondering where she had gone, and why. Slowly things became clear. A colleague (again, I’ll leave him anonymous) told me he’d seen the pictures elsewhere on the internet, on a social media site associated with ‘Rebecca’ – he wouldn’t tell me where. It seemed her guerrilla knitting had a more quotidian focus.

 

                        Can anyone unravel the mystery

                        of cupid’s pink-and-purple nappy?’

 

            My colleague printed off a picture of a baby wearing clothes made of the same wool – at least, the same pink and purple hues – that had bombed the public statues. ‘You knew she was with someone?’ he asked me, seeing that I was disturbed – though I couldn’t tell him why. ‘I never met her ‘significant other’,’ he went on: ‘But I heard he was significantly older.’ If this was true, I thought, he must have had ‘issues.’ Then I recalled, with shuddering significance, the strange question she asked me after we first made love.

            ‘Have you had the operation?’ she asked, cradling me inside her still. Was she that na├»ve? So I said I wasn’t Jewish. She replied: ‘No, not that sort of snip.’

            ‘Oh, the snip?’ Why was she asking me this? ‘It’s not the sort of thing a single, middle-aged man gets done for fun.’ I suggested, bemused.

            ‘It’s just, I’m not sure my contraception has kicked in yet.’ As I twigged the implication, I felt another surge inside, and watched the corner of her mouth twitch into a smile. ‘Don’t worry: it’ll be fine,’ she assured me, as our bodies pulled together.

             Putting the pieces together, I began to see the picture. I had been duped into becoming an unsuspecting donor – cheaper than the internet option she had toyed with. Whether I was wrong or right, I was angry.

 

            A child’s future is hardly worth a snip

            if you didn’t have money to pay for it.

 

            If my reaction, to avenge her robbery of my heart or my love or my life, was out of bitterness, god knows what led to her final act; her ultimate guerrilla-attack. Apart from the obvious: she was guilty, and knew it. ‘Rebecca’ had to do whatever she had in her power to protect herself from being revealed as a pilfering fraudster. She was a thief, and yet had tried to share her perfidious behaviour, expecting me to sit back and accept it. I did not. And so, she needed to silence me.

 

            Purple balaclava, pink hat, protective helmet?

            Or is Sir Antony dressed in a baby’s bonnet?

           

            As the months passed, I felt increasingly weak. Nobody seemed to know where she was; I got no more clues from the colleague who’d tipped me off, and as yet I didn’t know that ‘Rebecca’ had seen my tweeted questions with the yarn-bomb pictures. I was neither able to grieve for the loss of love, albeit fraudulent, nor smile for the child from which I was potentially banished. One bright summer morning, I walked through the Royal Park, with Schumann’s Dichterliebe floating through my head. God, those Romantics knew a thing or two: we academics must seem like fakes in comparison.

            Skirting the lakeside, looking at up the remains of St Antony’s Chapel (where we had our last parting) I saw the final street-tweet.

 

@streettweets

My mother smiled, my father wept,

Into the dangerous world I leapt.

A public twitterer revealed

a secret intended to be kept.

 

            My heart sank. As I set out along the lake and up the pathway towards the ruined chapel, I felt myself wanting to faint as I recalled my colleague’s advice. ‘Leave her alone,’ he said: ‘There’s nothing you can do.’ I figured he knew more than he let on. Maybe she was married all along, to a man who couldn’t bear her the son she dearly wanted (so she told me – if anything she said can be believed.) If so, there would be no case in law to challenge the paternity of the child.

            Trudging up the shingle path, my feet slipped and bashed on the wooden wedges that formed steps up to the chapel, while my head pounded with pointless questions. What’s the opposite of being ‘raped?’ I have been ‘reaped’ – not violated, but deceived into involuntarily donating my seed; lured into fatherhood without the privilege of future parenthood? Increasingly breathless, I wondered: is this just my fantasy, as ludicrous as the Ross Fountain cupid in her nappy? The chapel loomed above me, casting a gothic shadow across the grass. I was half-expecting to see strands of pink and purple wool wrapped around the gaping windows.

            Instead, I noticed a group of tourists gaining peculiar pleasure from the information sign: pointing at something more amusing than a dull historical illustration. My heart then thudded as heavily as my head. I heard myself shouting as I scrambled up the final stretch. My absurdity dispersed the group. God knows what I said or looked like. Like a madman, I ripped at the photographs pasted onto the sign, then tripped as I ran to the next. Some of the pictures flew from my hands, and fluttered off the edge. Thankfully, my hobbling prevented me from flinging myself over to rescue them.

            I attacked the second sign more calmly, wondering pointlessly how long ago these images had been posted, who had seen them, how many were there? I sifted through the shredded pages to see if there were any identifying features. They were all taken from abstract angles. But I remember ‘Rebecca’ taking shots of my face that fateful evening. More worrying was the potential for future postings. Clutching my stash of compromising photographs, I continued needlessly to the top of Arthur’s seat, admitting that ‘Rebecca’ had finally defeated me.

            What had I done to her to be treated with such malice? I had heard of something called ‘revenge-porn’ but I’m not in the habit of looking up such things, and had no intention of trawling the internet to see if ‘Rebecca’ would dare to stoop that low. Nevertheless, those pictures exist, and could appear at any point. Reaching the summit, I looked out over Edinburgh, gleaming as the mist dissolved; a city in the throes of Festivity. I felt the life drain out of me. But the questions remained.       

            Why did she do it? What could I do? I was powerless. Impotent: ‘Rebecca’ had got what she wanted.

            Revenge.

            For what? I thought I loved her, but I was doubly deceived – by ‘Rebecca’ and myself. What a fool. Love – not revenge – is the sweetest morsel to the mouth that ever was cooked in hell.

 

Regular or frequent readers of this thread will be familiar with the background of this story; furthermore you will have read a 10% ‘teaser’ last July. If you would like to know where the poems and stories that I re-produce here on my blog have been officially published, please leave a comment or contact me.

 

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