Last year, I moved from the city of Edinburgh, which had been my home for the majority of my adult life so far, back over the water to Fife. This was absolutely the best move for us as a family, and I don’t regret it. But I do miss my city – particularly walking in my city – which I did every day for years and years. I’ve also been reading Garnette Cadogan’s essays on walking recently. I can never pretend to have the life experience he has (had), but it has made me stop and think about a simple element of my own life that I have lost – my own city walking and the space it gave me, particularly at night.
I’m one of those who knows the short-cuts, the curves, the ways the streets underline each other, one of the locals who fold themselves into the city and hide in plain sight. I’m one who circumnavigates tourists, even during the multiplicity of festival seasons. I’m one who knows tiny pubs, quiet cafés, hidden bookshops and secret gardens.
I weave my way down North Bridge at midday. I imagine everyone’s foot-trails like tracked migrations, birds over air, seals underwater, feet flowing over concrete. A foot-trodden tapestry of routes, of starting points and destinations. The wind whips dust, plastic straw coverings and leaf litter. I walk through wall after wall of e-cigarette smoke – pungent vanilla and menthol punches. A child’s buggy passes with bunny trailing in the gutter, eyes hanging off.
For most people their focus is away, far distant, or turned in on themselves, facing flickering phone screens.
Time concertinas on city walks, particularly at night where I walk with stars above and stars at my feet, the dark pavements shimmering under streetlights. My thoughts stream like headlight trails in long exposure. I sing to myself, relishing the sound of each word in my mouth, curling around my tongue, over my lips. Few folk around, outdoors at least. It’s 4am. Indoors folk sleep or fuck or argue or murmur or laugh or dance or write or read or quietly, simply gaze.
The night walk home, often alone. It’s where I gathered my emotions and gave them space to talk; where I felt cradled in and by the city; where problems were worked through, sometimes resolved; where words came easily, poems rippled, stories told and retold themselves, ready to be harnessed on paper, later. Where the rhythm of one foot after another helped literally move me forward, prepare for the next day of work or play or child-caring, and I miss it.
I miss it.
I rarely walk my city at night now. I have to catch the last train home, rather than wander back when I want. My nights are restricted to before midnight, curtailed – literally, tail-end chopped off. The city is still mine, my home, even though I now live away from its outer-most boundaries in the county over the water. I can see its compact, hill-hugging outline from the end of my new street. Arthur’s Seat hunches, providing shelter. The Pentlands border it to the south, the Firth to the north. The city bustles in between hillslopes and sky, seascapes and edgelands.
In a flickering night-time ciné film memory I walk every street, remember every corner, every cornice, every edge-path, every visible and invisible boundary. The place where the fishwives whetted their gutting knives on stone window-ledges by the shore, the initials on the ground that mark the hangings, the face in the wall, the heart where you spit for luck, the alley with the steps where a friend got glassed, the candles you lit in the cathedral, the chair where his ghost stood behind you for a second, the crag where you held his hand til dawn, the cafe where you talked all night and ate maltesers with hot chocolate, the park with the peacock-feather sprinklers, the beach where you escaped the heat-spinning hustle, the road where your daughter was stung by a wasp, the sunken, shaded path where you walked with her after until she finally slept, the swing in the garden your girls miss, still, the places where time layers itself and you walk at 15, 22, 31 and almost 40, under the same arched trees, to sift through memory-sediments and work it all through in your mind.