As the Flybe jet emerged through the clouds, I remembered it was a beautiful, sunny day every day at altitude. Looking down from my flight to Edinburgh was a vast, unbroken cloudscape. With almost all of the country blanketed by snow on the ground and cloud overhead, it was nice to be up in the bright blue. It wasn’t to last and as we approached the airport the Embrayer 175 jiggled around into the stiff headwind with the Forth Rail Bridge the only distinguishable landmark in the gloom. Ah, spring 2013.
The Premier Inn at Edinburgh Park has one redeeming feature: it’s atop a railway station. Not great for snoozing. Great for convenience. Ten minutes later and I’m stepping out – I can’t bring myself to say “alighting” – at Waverley Station. What’s that quote from Trainspotting?
“But when ye come back oot ay Waverley Station eftir being away fir a bit, ye think: Hi, this isnae bad”
Edinburgh and I have previous. So I make haste up to the new town intending to fill the lungs with bracing air, find a pub for dinner and a wee dram. This simple mission is complicated by the fact that the streets are a disaster zone. They have been installing the tram system for years. My last Fringe Festival was a (fantastic) trip for my fortieth birthday. (Thanks Mrs B.) They were in full construction swing then and that was three years ago. It doesn’t feel any nearer completion to me. A minor positive side effect is no traffic on many streets so when you look up and around it’s magic. The architecture is proud and symbolic and majestic and cleverly lit (which adds to the vibe: I see what they did there). It’s also bloody freezing so I dip into the first establishment which isn’t a globo-chain. The Tiles is a lavish Victorian affair whose high ceilings, walls and, er, well, everything are tiled in deep colour. It must’ve made a lavish office in it’s original days housing the Prudential.
The Deuchars IPA chases down a steak and before long I am on a calorie burning urban safari. Across Princess Street to the Mound, up to the Castle, down the North Wind to find the venue that I made my Fringe debut at in 1993. It’s on the street where an early chase scene in Trainspotting is filmed with Ewan McGregor legging it down the road pursued by the rozzers. It takes little imagination on this chill night to recall the bleakness of that story.
Striding down the Royal Mile I pass tourist groups being nosily guided on themed walking tours. As I near the North Bridge I cut down Cockburn Street and into a steep alley to the railway. It’s like passing into a parallel dimension. Homeless junkies. Hissed, threatening conversation in a urine soaked doorway “Aye, I’ll get yer munnay. Ah wulllll.” I move swiftly on into the light of the station.
This is a surreal night-time circus of a city centre station in the 21st century. Victorian engineering mashed up with privatised rail franchises. Corporate outlets encircle a concourse populated with the flotsam and jetsam of the Edinburgh night. It’s a heady mix.
Then it got weird.
I decide against a quick nip of something peaty in the bar and board the next available train. I pick up a copy of the Metro and smile at the well turned out pensioner who plonks herself opposite me.
“A fellow west coaster?” She demands making me start.
“Ach, yer English.”
“Ohhhh? A Celt….”
I turn my attention to the paper.
“Do you know what I just did?” Louder and with wavering emotion.
“Ah just gave a junkie ten quid for his next hit.”
And without further ado she fairly bursts into tears. Proper convulsing posh Scottish sobs.
This, dear reader, was not something I equipped myself for this evening. Moments before I was not a little relieved to be aboard a train escaping such a salubrious place without incident.
And now this.
“Ah asked him how much he needed. Ah asked him if he was a heroin addict. He said he was and he needed sux pounds. So ah sat wuth him and gave him toooo. “ Sobs. “Then ah gave him ten and ma phone number and told him ah’d pay for rehab. But he up and left. He’ll never call….”
“And I felt guilty for having a pint on a school night” I offer clumsily as her shoulders shudder with forceful sadness.
It’s an eight minute journey to Edinburgh Park from Waverley. I think I got as much of a life story as it’s possible to get in eight minutes without being hardwired by fibre-optic. She’s well to do. She has a penchant for helping the homeless. She has two sons. She has a daughter who works in Islington for one of the Guinness family.
When the train stops I manage to gently get my hand back from her clasp and wish her a pleasant, safe trip home. Her eyes are red, her tweed is folded under the fur coat, her bag lays heavily across her lap.
Stepping onto the platform I don’t look back. Much like I didn’t on the steps outside Waverley.
So here are additional joys of the Premier Inn: Anonymity, security and warmth behind a locked door.