Johnnie Lambert’s Guide to Life
Edinburgh has always felt itself to be a special place, not that it’s had much experience of other places, for it has never been anywhere else. There was that time in the early twentieth century mind you, when some council official, or maybe it was a politician, because they were always trying to find ways of gerrymandering elections, that the city boundaries were changed. It had taken Edinburgh some time to get used to the provincial ways of Leith, especially since the people of Leith were very against the merger, but luckily it hadn’t taken Leith long to assimilate with the more European ways of Scotland’s capital city. Edinburgh was like that, it liked to think that it pulled people up, and never stooped to their level.
There has always been that animosity with Glasgow, but Edinburgh never liked to join in with that. No, Edinburgh liked to concentrate on its own environs, seeing the changing years, decades, and centuries pass. It liked to concentrate on the positive, that way things got done, good things happened, changes occurred that had an impact, on Edinburgh itself, the people who lived there and here, Edinburgh did feel a wee bit smug, occasionally even the world. Yes, Edinburgh was that type of city – internationalist, some would say even global.
Sometimes if you stand on a street corner somewhere in the city and take a moment to look around you, you can feel it, you can feel the magic in the air. Those who don’t really understand the city just think it’s the wind blowing up from Leith Walk, swirling in the closes and stairs, rattling at the windows. But no, look again, there’s magic in that wind.
With every change of season Edinburgh offers a new beginning, a feeling of excitement, and hope. Somethingwonderful is going to happen. The way the sun glints on the sandstone, and filters through the budding branches of trees in springtime. The way in which tourists start to arrive every summer – every summer – from every corner of the globe, although globes don’t have corners, Edinburgh has often thought to itself. All of these tourists looking, looking upwards at the towering buildings of the Royal Mile, touching the history, smelling the magic. Then later as August arrives, so does the Festival and everyone who wants to be part of it also starts to arrive, and the magic of the stage becomes the dominant magic. For a few short weeks, anyone, yes anyone, can have some of that magic, and fulfil their dreams of acting, writing, dancing, being a musician, and even – the oddest of things in Edinburgh, which isn’t exactly known for its sense of humour – a comedian.
And when the dream-weavers and chasers leave, there’s always a period of sadness. All that hope and optimism is over for another year. Yet, some stays, for it finds a home here in the buildings, the institutions, the open spaces, and even in individual people. Some people, once they experience it, never want to leave, for all the right reasons, and sometimes, for the wrong reasons. But somehow Edinburgh likes to help them find their right way.
Autumn can be a slippery time, with fallen leaves and steep pavements and cobbled roads making a dangerous combination. Students arrive, mostly young people full of the excitement of learning and living on their own. Edinburgh has made a regular home for them over the centuries. The magic in the air is especially heady at this time, heady with the promise of the future, and things yet unknown.
Then it’s winter’s turn. Winter when the wind blows especially hard and cold and people wrap their coats and scarfs a little bit tighter and push against the wind as they battle up the hills towards work, and school, and university. But if you just pause for a little while, a second or two here and there, some of the magic, masquerading as wind, will settle on you. It will work its way under your collar, it will sit on uncovered hair, and sometimes, if you’re especially lucky it will filter into your eyes and mouth. Sometimes your eyes will feel like they’ve grit in them and you will want to rub or wipe them. But by then it’s too late, the magic will have found its way inside you and things, sometimes things you’ve only ever dared to dream about will begin to happen.
Christmas is the most special of the winter-times. The streets glisten and windows shine with light and wonder. The strangest things occur, magical things appear, and things that can’t quite be accounted for happen on Edinburgh’s streets, and in the air above it. Magic is everywhere.
Then before you know it, you’re back in springtime, where everything feels new and fresh, and a different type of magic is in the air.
Welcome to Edinburgh. Can you feel the magic yet? No? Well neither can Johnnie, or Calypso, or any number of people living here – at least not yet. Though there have been times in all of their lives that it’s filtered through, but due to the preoccupations of their days and weeks and years they haven’t noticed that too much, and the times that they did notice they never took the time to dwell on the magic for too long. But give Edinburgh time to wind its way down through the New Town to Johnnie and Calypso’s lovely wide street. A street where they’ve lived for varying amounts of time, a street which has known its share of pain and magic over the years. Edinburgh is looking forward to weaving some magic in this street again, even if they aren’t looking for it. Luckily Apollo is very aware of it. He lifts up his snout towards the wind on every walk he takes and inhales its secret smell. Apollo loves when the magic lands on him.
In the six months Johnnie Lambert has 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.
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.
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 a.m. 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’d 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 began 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.
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, 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 though. Flicking through the pages of the jotter, 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 that kind of 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 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.
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