Benches

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It was perhaps the 15th bench she’d pointed out as he carefully tried to move her away.

“This one is dedicated to ‘Mr Peterson of Comely Bank’. I wonder who he was and why there’s a bench dedicated to him, it doesn’t say.”

“1917”, Eric pointed out the date just below the inscription. “Perhaps he died during the First World War.”

“Oh that’s too sad”, Moira said, rubbing her nose slightly with her left hand and sniffing gently. She clasped her right hand tighter into Eric’s, intertwining her fingers through his, locking him to her, and pulled herself closer to him so she could lean against his shoulder. “Do you think his wife, or whoever dedicated this bench, came here often to sit? Maybe his sweetheart? Maybe his children? Maybe his grandchildren still come here and sit here and think of him?” Her voice almost pleaded for positive affirmation of her thoughts.

“Unlikely”, Eric said. “Like most of the benches here they’re probably forgotten. You can tell by the state most of them are in. I wouldn’t be surprised if it’s just some scam by the council to get people to pay for benches so they don’t have to.”

“Oh don’t say that”, Moira exclaimed, “I’m sure that’s not true.” They stood in silence for a moment before Eric managed to start moving further down Prince’s Street towards the Mound, carefully pulling Moira with him. However, they soon stopped again.

Moira was reading another plaque. “See this one, ‘To my dearest Johnny, I will think of you always when the Cherry Blossoms, Your Margie, forever and always.’ Isn’t that so sweet?”

Eric sighed, but imperceptibly. It had taken over half an hour to walk from the West End to this point and at this rate, they were never going to get up the Mound to the High Street where he had a small student flat, only rented of course. You couldn’t buy property in this part of town for love nor money. He still had a little packing to do and could do with an early night.

“Do you think”, Moira was saying, “that you’d like me to dedicate a bench to you when you’re gone?”

Eric stared at her incredulously, “But I’m only going to Stirling!” he exclaimed.

Moira pulled at him using their locked hands, jolting his arm quite suddenly and a little painfully. “No silly, when you’re dead and I’m left all alone in the world, pining after you as a wee old white-haired widow, remembering my famous husband, the bio-chemist Eric McDonald.”

Eric looked up at the castle, now lit up in shades of red, noting how like Stirling Castle it looked. Would he think of this night as he looked at that different castle in the years to come? Would he remember it at all as he ventured out on a new life, a new University, his PhD course, his career, his future? He smiled sadly at Moira who was still staring at the bench. “Come on”, he said, “I’ve got to pack. I need to be away by ten.”

(Just After) Midnight In Edinburgh

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A man shivers. An isolated icy blast roughly stabs at his exposed face. The remnants of a winter stubbornly refusing to end, one splaying its insidious limbs into the realms of spring and beyond. The fibreglass of the tram stop surrounding him fails to act as an adequate defence against the elements. His shakes his body. Lazily. Indifferently. A feeble, half-hearted attempt at generating heat.

The man looks up at the electronic display. Where once expected arrival times would flow and flicker with frequency, now sits only stony resolve. No trams will arrive now or any time in the near future said stony resolve tells the man. The last has been and gone. Carrying all who stumbled into its guts back to their respective abodes. Back to warmth. Back to comfort. Another icy blast strikes at the man. The chill numbs his toes before beginning the slow, creeping ascent up both legs. The man remains still. Caught in paralysis. His bones, his thoughts; neither urge him to move. A reason, a motivation; in absentia.

He shifts his gaze, glancing up at the castle sitting resplendent as always – this time bathed in a red glow, whether for commemoration or celebration the man knows not – as it watches, or rather rules, over the city that surrounds it. The crag of the much-vaunted crag and tail. A crooked, yet robust, image carved into the still night sky. It warms him, if only briefly. He’s warmed by its beauty. By its singularity. And, above all else, by its familiarity. Edinburgh; the castle. The castle; Edinburgh. The two are indivisible. Entwined. A source of unbreakable togetherness. Of constancy. No matter the chaos that surrounds it or him, thinks the man, no matter the unmitigated mess wrought upon him or the world, he can always be certain that the castle remains. Sitting atop the Edinburgh skyline. Spilling its beauty into his mind. A fulcrum of dependency as the rest of his existence crumbles into dust.

His shifts his gaze once more. Wrested from the beauty of the castle and its red hue by the vision of a couple walking, arms linked, on the pavement across from him. They clutch each other tightly. Defiant against the cold. Their smiles teeter resiliently against the accumulating blasts of gale and, now, fledgling fragments of sleet. But the temperature seems to bother them not. The world they cohabit, the bubble they exist in, protection enough against the negativity and gloom threatened by the elements. They laugh. A chittering laugh, one that rattles shakily through their smiles. Then kiss. An affectionate kiss. A loving kiss. The man looks down at his feet. Disheartened. His mind drifting. Back to that place. Back to the darkness. Back to the familiar.

That was him, he thinks. Or rather, he corrects himself, that was them. Back then. At the start. Entwined. Oblivious. Resilient. Walking along arm-in-arm, the city’s silhouette sketched out behind them, the backdrop to a burgeoning love story. The city’s lights twinkling demurely as fleeting love-soaked thoughts skipped by in his mind; ‘Does she love me? Is it too early to tell her I love her? Will she say it back?’ And now here he stands. Alone. Enveloped by nothing more than the cold taunting blasts of the wind. Forgotten. Rejected. Consigned and condemned to an eternal solitary vigil. The man’s eyes start to glaze. Widen. All focus and conviction draining from them as his mind returns to the relentlessly questioning, poking, prodding, taunting, mocking, stabbing, piercing darkness. The castle’s red glow tints the blurred periphery of his vision.

He reaches, almost subconsciously, for his pocket, fishing out the iPod from within. His oft-repeated and played heartbreak playlist already forming in his mind. The Modern Leper, Start A War, Love Letter et al; the songs flash meekly in his mind, tuning up their instruments in preparation for another round of their residency at the man’s self-constructed heartbreak hotel. But then he stops. His finger hovering over the Play button. A thought trickles anxiously into his head. Less a thought, in fact, and more a memory. Or, at the very least, the slither of a memory. The feeling. The colours. The moment. The song. Of a time long before. Long before now. Long before her. He scrolls through the list of artists and lands on the one he wants. The one he needs. He finds the song. With a breath, he presses play.

He smiles.

Gently, yes. Slightly, absolutely. But he smiles, the man. That feeling, the one he sought so desperately, returns to him. However briefly, however watered-down by the years, it matters not. A semblance of the feeling invades his mind. A semblance of what he used to know. Of what he used to crave. Of what he used to be. Of whom he used to be. He looks up again, suddenly regaining his focus. The castle glimmers back. It now, confidently, signals beauty. Celebration. Its red glow instantly devoid of all clunky metaphor and depressive insinuation. The man glances along the pavement and sees the couple disappearing into the sleety horizon, their huddled mass wavering under the strength of the onslaught.

The man turns away and glances back down to his iPod. A flash of white nudges into his sight. On the ground, by his shoe. It trembles as the wind contemplates sweeping it into the night air. He leans down instinctively and reaches for it. Paper. A receipt. His receipt. The one from the book shop he had visited earlier that day. It must have fallen out when he had wrestled the iPod from his pocket. He stares at the damp, dirt-flecked, receipt. And smiles once again. A knowing smile. A pleasant, knowing smile. His thoughts drift back to the bookstore. And the girl behind the counter. A few lines of conversation, that’s all it was. A few generically everyday bookshop-worker to bookshop-customer words and sentences infused by one little moment. A bad joke. A shared smile and laugh for said bad joke. And a look. A transient, barely-there look. But there was a look. A smile that hints at something more, a flush of the cheeks that suggests a connection of sorts.

Or maybe not. Thinks the man, still smiling. Probably not, in fact, he decides as his own reddening cheeks gasp against the chill. But it was enough. It is enough. His smile widens. Not enough to ask her out, or declare love, or anything as ridiculous as that. No. But enough to remind himself. Enough to tell himself that he was, and is, still here. Still alive. He was still him. In amongst all the memories and the cultivation and ruination of quirks and character, he was still in there. And so were they. His next great love stories. Or not. But they could be. That’s what makes the man smile. The ‘coulds’, the ‘cans’ and the ‘maybes’ that now flash through his mind like a whirlwind of change and reassurance. The broken heart still beats, after all. And maybe, he thinks, just maybe, I need to add a few more books to my collection. I certainly could, he decides. Tomorrow? Maybe not. But soon, he smiles. Soon.

The man glances up at the blankness of the electronic display one last time and shakes his head. Smiling. Still smiling. The song, the thoughts, the feelings of rediscovery and resurrection flickering through, and warming, his mind as he turns and walks confidently off into the Edinburgh night.