Johnnie Lambert’s Guide to Life, but unfortunately not love

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Johnnie Lambert's Guide to Life (Contemporary Fiction, Writing Award 2023)
Have you ever thought how much easier your life would be if someone gave you a guidebook that showed you how to do all the things that you didn't know how to, ordinary everyday things like making friends, having a social life, finding a good hairdresser? But who can help you with the LOVE thing?

Chapter One

In the six months Johnnie Lambert had lived in Edinburgh, he’d never been into the French Patisserie on North West Circus Place. He’d passed it often, on Sunday mornings on his way to buy provisions at Stockbridge Market, and seen people, couples mostly or small groups of friends huddled around rickety garden furniture, old and weather worn but curiously elegant, and unlike the smart tables and chairs situated outside other Stockbridge cafes. He’d seen them, as autumn turned to winter and jumpers and cardigans were replaced with coats and scarves, hunched over steaming cups of coffee and plates of flaky croissants.

The little café came to mind this morning, as Johnnie opened his fridge and, finding it bare, sighed.

Today, Thursday was a workday, the first hopeful day of an Edinburgh spring, when the sun was shining, and the crocuses and daffodils were pushing through the ground of the railinged garden at the end of his street. All around him Edinburgh was on the move, striding purposefully along the broad Georgian streets, stepping onto buses that trundled up the hills of the New Town, manoeuvring cars out of tight residents parking bays, weaving along the cobbles on bicycles, and being shepherded to school by fretful parents trying to look as if they’re listening while checking their phones.

Johnnie took it all in, in the way of someone seeing something for the first time. He stood on his pavement on the corner of Great King Street, lifting his hand to shield his eyes from the early morning sunlight, and without giving it a second thought, which was most unlike him, turned right instead of left, into Circus Place, along the elegant crescent of Georgian buildings into the thoroughfare of North West Circus Place, and down the hill to Patisserie Florentin where, as usual, the outside tables were full.

Negotiating his way around the queue at the till, Johnnie found an empty table at the back of the café, it had recently been vacated, an empty coffee cup and plate still on the table alongside a folded copy of today’s Guardian, and a menu. As the waiter approached and took his order, clearing the table as he went, Johnnie indicated that he wanted to read the paper, and there was no need to remove it from the table.

As he unfolded the newspaper he noticed the notebook, a buff-coloured jotter, of the type that Johnnie had filled many of during his high school years, sitting on the table. It must have been left by the previous occupant he thought, looking around him for the owner; I’ll hand it to the waiter when he brings my breakfast, he thought, scouring The Guardian’s dismal front page.

A small commotion occurred then, a woman wielding a buggy so large that it caught the side of a table at the entrance to the café, tipping the table, and its contents onto the floor. This occupied everyone’s attention, the waiter, approaching Johnnie’s table with his flat white and cheese and bacon croissant, deposited them, and with an apologetic smile, turned to deal with the incident of the buggy.

Johnnie, feeling a sense of responsibility, as he often did, even when a situation had nothing to do with him, sighed and thought about the design of that buggy, and how important it was to have products that matched the circumstances they were meant for. A bit like always having the right clothes for the right weather. Things had to be fit for purpose: Designed for a purpose, and this buggy hadn’t been designed for negotiating tight New Town cafes or indeed shops. Or perhaps it was the owner who was to blame, buying a buggy that was so clearly made for more rugged terrain? Johnnie pondered these issues, allowing his thoughts to wander along the lines of multi-purpose products.

The notebook was forgotten for a while, as it was hidden yet again under the folded Guardian, and Johnnie enjoyed his breakfast while continuing his train of thought on design principles and ethics.

Chapter Two

Madeline Blake hadn’t realised how the time had gotten away from her so quickly. So immersed had she been in her writing that she hadn’t realised it was now nine o’clock and she would have to take the bus up the hill to her office at the National Library and her nine-thirty appointment.

She bundled her belongings into her already bulging book bag and joined the queue to pay for her breakfast.

By the time she reached the top of Circus Place where the road joins Howe Street, she paused to wait for the Green Man so she could cross to the bus stop. It was then she thought about her diary and, slipping her book bag half off her shoulder to look inside, started to rummage, in amongst her laptop, a folder of clippings and notes, her lunch box, the novel she was reading, her water bottle, pencil case, phone, and the tangled knot of her scarf. No. No diary.

She turned then to look back down the street from where she’d come, wondering whether she had time to run back and see if she’d left it in the cafe. Of course, she had to go back. The weight of her book bag unbalanced her slightly as she swung around to head back down the hill in the direction of Café Florentin. Suddenly she lost her footing, stumbling on the pavement. As she steadied herself, it hit her, but she didn’t know what it was that had hit her.

A screeching sound, metal on metal. A second or two of fear running up her spine to her neck, pain everywhere, no, numbness, flying and clutching at air, letting go of her bag and fearing for her laptop.

Then there was nothing.

Chapter Three

The rickshaw driver picked up the three girls on the Royal Mile, it was a different type of shift for him. He was used to working at night when it was all drunk punters looking for a laugh, these daytime tourist trips were quieter, folk more concerned with seeing the city, a few environmentalists who didn’t want to add to the pollution by using cars or buses. There was always something to talk to these folk about, places to show them, buildings to point out. They tended to be good tippers too. These girls were different to the usual tourist mob though, more of a laugh, the middle one really gorgeous. They’d arrived two days earlier from Canada and they’d be here for a week, the middle one told him with a knowing smile.

It was still not nine o’clock. He joked with them that they’d obviously not been out the night before. “We haven’t been home!” they all chimed in unison. He showed them the route of his tour on the little plastic covered map he carried in his pocket, and after making sure they were all strapped into their seats he set off, down the Royal Mile, turning occasionally to point to a landmark or two that he’d memorised for his interview three weeks earlier. Every time he turned around, she was looking at him, He was embarrassed at first but the more he made them laugh the bolder he felt.

By the time they’d reached Queen Street and were heading towards the West End, the girls were asking him to take them to Stockbridge.

“Sorry ladies, that’s a no go. We can’t take the rickshaws out of the zoned area.” He shouted back at them, the noise of the heavy traffic catching his voice and sending it out across Queen Street Gardens. Still, they persisted, needling, joking, and the one in the middle, with the lovely smile and the eyes that met his every time he turned around finally persuaded him to “Drop us in Stockbridge, pleeeease, we’re only a street or two away according to our map. Just take us to the bottom of this road.” She pointed haphazardly at her map. He knew that if he was to have any chance of getting her phone number, he would have to take them down the hill. Despite all the warnings, and knowing that he was breaking the regulations, he turned right at the corner of Queen Street and Howe Street and made his way down the hill to Stockbridge.

It was easier going downhill, less pedalling, more puff for the chat they seemed to like. The Green lights were all going his way too, he got up quite a speed, and had to apply the brakes to give himself time to point out things like Robert Louis Stevenson’s house on Heriot Row. As he was nearing the foot of Howe Street as it turned into North West Circus Place he had begun to gather speed again, the tyres of the rickshaw smooth and slick on the cobblestones, he turned to tell the girls he’d drop them around the corner near to the shops and café’s they’d heard about, It was then that the rickshaw began to sway and tip, he tried to straighten it as he felt it mount the pavement, but it was too late, the momentum he’d gained coming down the hill and his lack of attention on the corner caused him to lose control. He didn’t see the woman standing on the edge of the pavement, but he felt the impact as the rickshaw hit, rolling over into the side of the car waiting at the red light. The girls in the back screaming and screaming.

Chapter Four

When Johnnie had finished his croissant and cleared the crumbs from the surroundings of his plate, he picked up the newspaper again. The notebook! His hand strayed towards it, he was unsure of the etiquette here, was it appropriate to look inside? Perhaps if he opened it, he would find one of those quaint little “This book belongs to …” inscriptions on the front page, surely if he just opened it and checked if there was a name and number then that would be ok? Or should he just hand it to the waiter and be done with it? Johnnie felt his fingers twitch, he looked around to see if anyone was watching, or the owner had returned? Nothing, nobody. He opened the notebook at the first page. It was empty, no name, no number, not even an email address.

Beyond the first page Johnnie was aware of the satisfying heft of the contents, it was someone’s diary, line after line of their thoughts, extra pages slipped in, diary dates highlighted, post-it notes with appointments and phrases hastily scribbled, rough sketches, and then as he flicked quickly and self-consciously through the pages a phrase caught his eye.

“So, Edinburgh is what a city ought to be. Somewhere to live and walk about in”, a quote by John Betjeman. Johnnie re-read the quote. “To live?” he mouthed to himself.

He paused then as the waiter hovered in front of him, asking to clear away his cup and plate, asking if he would like another coffee. Johnnie shook his head, so fixated on the contents of the notebook that he forgot to feel guilty about looking through it. The waiter, unaware of the transgression taking place before him moved on to another table.

Forgetting that he had a ten o’clock meeting with the Dean, and fascinated by the quote from Betjeman, Johnnie delved further into the diary. It was more of a notebook really, yes appointments, reminders to contact people, buy tickets for concerts and events, dinner appointments, coffee with friends. But also notes and thoughts on Edinburgh itself: Chapter by chapter headings, maybe it belonged to a writer piecing together a new project? Each heading with a paragraph or two containing information or lists of names, or websites. There was a beauty to it, rather like the Artists books that he encouraged his students to keep and study. He hadn’t kept one of them in years. Perhaps he’d start.

A whole life here in a notebook.

Johnnie took it all in, reading the contents of someone else’s life. It was probably an ordinary life, a life like so many lives around him, the busyness of it was alien to him. Flicking through the pages of the notebook, Johnnie had a slow creeping realisation that the life he’d been living for the last year, since Colette had died, bore no resemblance to the busy life of these pages.

He’d forgotten what a real life was like, friends, outings, appointments, he’d let that all go after it’d happened. It was easier not to see people, not to talk about how he felt. So, he’d done things, like move job and to another city, so it looked like he was coping, and he was moving on but really, he was hiding out in this new city where he knew few people.

He’d focussed on his job, pouring himself into it. Immersing himself in the daily “list” of things he needed to do which stopped him thinking about Colette.

Johnnie had his interest stirred by the contents of this notebook, it made him think about his life and how quiet it was, how removed from the life he’d used to live. He wanted to hold onto the thoughts that the notebook had stirred in him. The memories that he hadn’t allowed himself to think about too much. until now. They were manageable, he thought to himself. They didn’t hurt the way they used to.

With a quick look around him he slipped the notebook into his messenger bag and swinging the bag over his back, made his way to the till. He paid his bill and clearing his conscience by telling himself that he’d hand the notebook in another day, he headed for his meeting with the Dean.

He already knew how the conversation would go, it was why he loved working in a university – the repetition and rhythm of each academic year.

After his meeting he would go to his office and settle at his desk where he would attend firstly to his urgent emails and set in motion whatever request the Dean had made. On the stroke of 11.55 am he would make his way to the lecture theatre where every Thursday at 12 noon he gave a “Brown Bag Lecture” titled “On the Purposes of Design” to anyone who cared to attend. Always attended by the most curious of students, and staff from all disciplines, their questions and the ensuing discussions would threaten to encroach beyond 1pm. And so, in the manner of all great storytellers Johnnie Lambert exited the lecture theatre leaving his audience craving more.

Chapter Five

Calypso Stuart liked to be organised, in life as well as dating. She’s been on this dating App for three months, two weeks, and five days, and in that time met nine apparently suitable men: four of whom were older than the “Forty to Forty-Five” age category box that she’d fastidiously ticked, and one who was very much a married man, complete with wedding ring. One of the men she’d met had been a woman pretending to be a man. The other three had been nondescript, and while perfectly pleasant, with a good standard of personal hygiene, she could no longer even remember their names. None of her meetings via the App had resulted in a successful romantic outcome, not the sort of outcome that Calypso envisaged anyway, and while that had left her feeling a bit weary, she hadn’t let it dishearten her.

So, every morning she opened the App in a spirit of hope and checked if anyone had swiped right on her the previous evening. She had a strict policy of not going on in the evening, when it was obvious that much alcohol was being taken across a fifty-mile radius of Edinburgh, and men, emboldened by whatever was in their glass liked to engage in wild sexual chat that bore no resemblance to their sober chat, or sexual abilities. A recipe for disaster, as Calypso had learned to her disappointment.

“It’s like being in a club after midnight” she had told Katy. “There’s an air of desperation, and quite frankly, if you’re still there at that time, it’s time to leave – and alone.”

With that in mind, she applied the same principle to her online dating. She never went online late in the evening and preferred to meet or respond to men in the cold light of day, that way they would hopefully be clear headed enough to respond in a similar way, and those that didn’t, well she considered that she’d got away lightly whenever that happened.

Calypso absentmindedly stroked Apollo’s ears as she scrolled through the App, swiping right twice before closing it down.

“Right buddy let’s take you for a walk and get your breakfast.”

The Golden Retriever, well used to his routine, trotted to the front door and waited patiently whilst Calypso pulled her coat on over her pyjamas and picked up her keys. Apollo already had his lead firmly in his mouth.

As Calypso Stuart closed the door of her Great King Street flat behind her, she caught sight of a very beautiful man coming out of the door opposite. “How lovely” she thought to herself as he slung his messenger bag diagonally over his back and, unaware that he was being watched, strode along the street towards the junction with Howe Street.

Apollo, quite used to his owner dallying in the street, waited patiently for her on the pavement, his lead firmly grasped in his mouth, just incase she had any thought of attaching it to him.