The winter afternoons: icy paths up urban hillocks, stalking the light through tenements and botanical gardens…
I have been thinking back to the last Christmas and New Year in Edinburgh, at the end of the noughties, and why it was so special. I offer the following reasons:
1) Giorgos’s pomegranate salad. Stuart’s Beef Wellington.
When I commented that I was glad we were balancing all the heavy foodstuffs with fibrous and delicious raw goods, Stu said:
‘What he means is that the salads are helping him to pass all the meat that he is not accustomed to eating.’
Giorgos had pressured me into being a non-vegetarian for the duration of Christmas. All the animals (he reassured me) had died happy, had actually been ‘wanked to death’.
2) The journey across the Firth in (Handsome) Stuart’s van.
We needed the 4 wheel drive because everything was icy. Our landlord had offered firewood if we came to pick it up. A boy’s outing: to a frosty garden where even the woodpiles looked like important art installations. We had fish and chips at Anstruther; we picked up a dead pine branch from the roadside to serve as a Christmas tree; a hoover bag to clean up the flat.
‘That’s the best day I’ve had in ages’, said Giorgos.
‘Because you didn’t spend all of it in front of your f’ing laptop’, said I.
3) Calton Hill.
With its icy paths and sudden views, it never disappointed. In terms of an energy expended to outlook gained ratio, it remains (in my experience) the ultimate urban hillock. It was also the site of some of the most daredevil behaviour I have ever seen: Stu racing us down the snowy slopes, sprinting downhill over the hard icy patches, towards the trees and the wrought iron spikes of the rich men’s gardens…as violently as he could in his patent leather shoes that (when I inspected them) seemed to have zero tread. He strode over the ice with utmost boldness at any opportunity, explaining techniques that he had mastered in Sweden.
‘Always Sweden with this guy!’ said Myrto.
‘You have to put your foot down like so, and so…keep your weight forward.’
Which made it all the funnier when he took an enormous fall come New Year’s Eve, landing flat on his rumpa (good Norwegian word – pron. room-pah) and bouncing icily a good few metres down the path, knocking aside the revellers trooping up to see the fireworks.
(They were sponsored by the Royal Bank of Scotland and didn’t last long.)
4) Call of Duty (Doodie) II: Modern Warfare.
This game was being referenced in the House of Commons at the time, during debates about age restrictions. One stage required you to gun down civilians in an airport, so as not to blow your cover in a terrorist cell. And then the separatists / Islamists shot you anyway – they knew all about it. As the Greek and I basically annexed (Handsome) Stuart’s room to feed our addiction, I remember Tamsin at one point standing somewhere off to the side trying to communicate with us, still holding on to the hope that some trace of civil behaviour and Christmas cheer might be left. We carried on sniping and RPG-ing.
When the fascination eventually waned, Stu and Myrto took over. Their failed attempt to get past ‘the helicopter stage’, despite devoting virtually whole afternoons to it, provided us veterans with on-tap hilarity for the whole festive season. We would wander in, guffaw and whinny and few times, then pour ourselves another Bailie Nicol Jarvie.
5) The fact that the drugs (Fishing) Dave brought up from London didn’t really work.
Giorgos had (touchingly) rigged his room with hi-tech Christmas lights (maybe even a lava lamp) and prepared whole playlists of glitchtronica. But all we felt was the mildest of fizzles. Which was just as well, since Dave and I almost got stranded in the icy, glacier-gouged space between Arthur’s Seat and the Crags. We picked our way back across the cobbles of Royal Terrace, Amudsen (me) and Scott (him), over the course of about 2.5 hours.
The rest of Boxing Day we stoked the fire, slowly dismantling our woodpile installation below the window that faced the Forth, feeding the flames with pages from glossy magazines and watching them bubble. (Straight-edged) Stuart decreed that the whole scene was boring and insisted that we go over the road to JP’s, which we did, to drink pear cider and grow very merry. The fact that blondie, ‘raven-haired beauty’ and all the others were no longer working behind the bar – that, as (Projector) Dave put it, ‘the glory days were over’ – also lent itself to a more festive atmosphere: less scope for male rivalry, jealousy and recriminations. We staggered back and I took a big fall on the icy patch in front of Gayfield Palace.
It stayed there for months, hard as iron, and treacherous (the coldest winter since 1910). But I thought back to it often when I left Edinburgh for good soon after and found myself enduring a heatwave in Africa South – how I just wanted to lie face down on it. Face down on the hard ice, just for a few minutes.
It wasn’t that much to ask?