A Leith Turning
by Ian Farnes
Format: Excerpt | Genre: General Fiction
Content warning: violence
Granton Harbour Breakwater
I had stood by the water’s edge before, wondering if the drop and the cold could take me. I felt a sickness, heavy in my throat, by the way my words had lain quiet behind closed tight teeth and lips. I had tried to make myself clear. I wanted my family to know me, as only a few others did. Instead I had remained silent. I was becoming transparent. The last time I was home, my brother had walked past me in the street.
Maybe I’d let my full weight rest in me, find stillness, like a stone. Feel gravity’s pull. I would feel what resistance the water would offer.
I stopped and waited for thunder, or lightning, or fire. The waves sprayed at my trouser hems as I stood on the breakwater. Lines of salt formed around my shoes, lit up by the moonlight. My feet were cold.
I started for home.
A month or so later I had an appointment to meet the First Minister of Scotland: the Government had told me this in a letter. I was to have my photo taken with him, so I slicked back my too-long hair with cheap hair gel and got dressed in the shirt and trousers I’d last worn as a waiter. Civil servants crowded around me, in expensive versions of the same uniform, but with jackets. A young woman had met me at the reception and I’d followed her in. She’d asked me if I was excited to meet the First Minister. I half-shrugged and half-smiled, not understanding what was so exciting. In the office, my new colleagues introduced themselves. They all asked me the same question – if I was excited – as if they were echoes of each other. I tried a bigger smile the third and fourth times I answered. I hoped that if I managed to answer the question perfectly it would not be asked again. After I’d shaken everyone’s hands, a silence settled. One of the civil servants looked at the floor, trying to think of what to say next. Nothing was said until the First Minister turned up.
Heads swivelled as he walked in. I had my photo taken with him as part of a press release. He was better dressed than I was, but not by much. His spectacles were smeared with grease. He asked me how I was. I told him I was fine. Small talk was interrupted by higher ups’ small talk. More introductions and jostling followed, positions changing with each new introduction, while rank and seniority was displayed. People laughed at the First Minister’s jokes. The loudest laughs came from the high rankers. I turned away to get peace in the view.
“Aw, look at that,” the First Minister said, and came over to join me. The two of us looked out at the city, the roads from the old port leading up to the seat of the Scottish Enlightenment and everything in between.
“What were you doing before you were unemployed?”
I told him I’d worked in a restaurant in the new town.
“That’s real hand-to-mouth stuff,” he said.
“Thought I’d be late getting in,” I said.
“Edinburgh’s always congested,” he told me, “we’ll sort it out one day.” He smiled, patted me on the shoulder and left me to stare out of the window. I never saw him again after that, apart from on the corner of Sauchiehall Street and Buchanan Street, in Glasgow, where they erected a statue of him after he died.
A man called Peter came over to speak to me. He explained my position: I was A1, or the “the lowest rung of the ladder”. He was a B3 after working his way up past where university graduates came in. He’d been offered promotions past B3, but had never accepted. He wanted work–life balance. He introduced me to the others: Dean, B2, a thin quiet man; Andrew, B1, newly graduated and the son of a church minister; Gillian, A3, who’d met me at the door; and finally, I met another A1 – a girl called Jenny. She was an artist, with a degree, who still wanted to work on her art and not as a B1. I tried to talk to her, but was led away and shown the draft of the press release:
“The Scottish Office yesterday welcomed its first recruit under the Government’s New Deal employment programme. Raymond Greene, 23, of Edinburgh, who was previously unemployed for just over a year, will work in the New Deal Division of the Scottish Office, giving administrative support to the team working on the Government’s flagship policy.”
Peter helped me settle in. At the end of my first week, he took Dean and me to a local pub in Leith.
“If you’re going to have a pint on Friday at lunch, you should do two things: eat mints and wash the beer from your lips … I put on aftershave as well.” He tilted his head and winked. He was a big man. Maybe I remember him as bigger than he was, pinstriped suit fit to burst when buttoned up. He would never say good morning, preferring a grunt; he’d warm up as the day went on. By midday he’d often sing nonsense songs he’d invented. He never ate in public. At lunchtime, he’d disappear. I later learnt that everyone knew when Peter had a drink, because the smell of his aftershave got stronger.
Every Friday afternoon, we would be asked along for a drink in whatever place Peter chose. I would normally accept. The work of the civil servant, especially at lower levels, seemed to be a continual extinction of personality, but on Friday we allowed whatever had been stifled on weekdays to be released. It’s the same for a lot of folk, I think. As we left the building and walked onto Saxe Coburg Street, we undid our ties and stuffed them in our pockets.
“Don’t tell people what you do,” Peter said. “If someone asks you, make something up. It’s not worth the hassle of trying to explain.”
Leith was a rough sort of place when I worked there. The offices of the Scottish Government were a box-shaped island of glass in a place that felt worn down. Policy leaked out of this glass, an invisible hand sculpting the world beyond. There’s a modern tram-line in Edinburgh now and Leith has changed: the old drinking dens have been replaced by bars with nautical names that make light of the past. It’s expensive to live there.
On Leith Walk, I once met a young homeless man at a bus stop, who, with cupped hands, showed me a mushroom sitting in its own dirt, his clothes covered in the same dirt as that which he held. He told me, “Look at the life, look at the life! Look at the life!”
On Leith Walk, I once saw a half-naked middle-aged man through the window of a bar, dancing on a table in slow motion, while other men watched on silently. I saw a man whip the grey pavement with the belt from his trousers. I saw the workers on the corner at Saxe Coburg Street, trying to tempt me out of the cold. I saw lone males, too drunk to walk, talking to themselves or invisible friends in the early hours of the morning. I saw fights and, sometimes, people running as fast as they could, away from whatever it was they were scared of.
Peter taught me about the bars of Leith, how not to stand with your back to the door and how to stand at the bar. If the bar-staff had tattoos back then, it was because they’d been in the Navy: Merchant or Royal or both. They were to be respected and thanked upon leaving. This harbour town of Leith ended with The Boundary Bar, a bar that had a line painted down the middle of it. One side was Edinburgh and the other side was Leith: different authorities with different by-laws. If you were from Edinburgh and wanted an extra hour’s drinking, you could step across the line painted on the floor and carry on.
One night, ties in pockets, in an old pub before The Boundary Bar, Peter introduced me to a woman friend of his. She was the same age as him, but I don’t think there was anything going on. She knew some of the same music I liked and I felt myself gravitating towards her as she talked. She reminded me of Jenny from work in the way she talked about music and painting, although she spoke in a more assured way than the people I knew. She talked about Picasso and I was able to join in: I once had a poster on my wall of a painting he’d done, of a woman with her naked back turned towards the viewer. I tilted my head as I listened to her talk, smiling, until I noticed a man staring at me from across the bar. I straightened up and carried on listening. Drinking beer with Peter and his friend, I felt like I was thawing. The pints led to the inevitable interruption.
In the toilet, the young man who had been watching me introduced his head to mine. He followed this with a fist in the face, followed by two or three more in rapid succession. You stop pissing when you’re in danger, I realised after. Peter came in, blustering, saw the young man punching me and asked what was going on. A guy the same age as Peter, followed in to back up his young friend. Peter explained that we were just leaving and we left.
We went to another bar after that, but the feeling of magic had been knocked out of the night. Then a tension, as if just before lightning, rose up in me; I became angry. It was the first anger I’d felt in years. I wanted to go back to the bar and show some fight.
“Ego,” said the woman, “that’s just your ego.”
“He was just a daft laddie … this is where he’s from … he saw you and felt threatened. You’re not from here. He can’t help but be from here,” Peter said.
We walked up Leith Walk together, but I made a move to head off on my own. I told Peter I was fine and we parted at the junction between Leith Walk and London Road. “You will be fine,” he half-parroted, trying to smile.
The street echoed at the sound of my work shoes – thin leather soles slapping down on slabs quarried from near where I grew up. A mist settled onto the street, swirling and dancing, like Edinburgh’s old ghosts holding hands and pawing at me. Clouds of it hung dark and low and were lightened in damp orange flows from street lights, illuminating old tenements. I didn’t want to be alone anymore. The cold light shook my bones – death was in the silence of an empty universe – and my feet were cold again and I began to ask myself who I was and why I was scared of both life and death. I remembered that a childhood friend lived nearby. I wanted to talk to him. New warmth grew under my clothes. Turning down Easter Road, I walked until I found myself chapping at my old friend’s door.
I wanted to talk about love and life, and started doing so as soon as the door opened, but I needed to explain why my face looked like it did. I told him and his girlfriend all about my night. They were worried about me and when I looked in their hallway mirror I saw why: my face was redder and more swollen than I’d imagined. Burst blood vessels coloured my eyelids.
After I’d finished the story, I asked if I could share their bed. I put it as simply as I could, because it seemed a simple idea. They politely refused. I told them that I didn’t want to be alone anymore.
I would have liked to have been held and joined with their arms and flesh. I almost broke down – a sea of unused emotion rising up as far as the edges of my eyes, twitching and flickering. It was hard for them to bear, but they did.
My friend said, “You can’t run away from your life. I saw your dad the other day … he says he’s not spoken to you in months. I haven’t seen you in months.”
The three of us drank a small whisky together and I slept on their sofa.
Back at work, I had to explain what had happened to everyone I saw. Either I eventually gave the right answer or Peter told people to stop asking, because the questions had dried up by mid-morning. Peter would have known that I didn’t want to talk to anyone about it, except maybe to Jenny. He knew that we’d been starting to get along and he’d been encouraging me to talk to her more often. She was more or less the same age as me and from that first day, her presence had jumped out at me and I’d wanted to get to know her. The following Friday I went out with her friends and her.
Later on at the party, I kissed her on the cheek. Her overbearing boyfriend was out of the room at the time. She laughed, surprised that I had it in me, and pushed me away. In the morning, walking home across Edinburgh’s bridges, she told me there was a room for rent in her flat.
Ian Farnes is part of the New Voices Workshop. He was mentored by NVW Fiction Editors Tommi Sopenperä, Amanda-Marie Kale and Nicole Caratas, as well as Sonali Misra, Co-founder and Head of Fiction at The Selkie.