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The suburbs south of the Meadows have a Gothicism all of their own, deriving from a particularly Gothic conception of the middle class, as a bigger and more crowded version of the aristocracy, but with the same fairytale sparkle. The architects who planted these villas, in neat rows like a kitchen garden, dreamed of a suburbia of little aristocrats, in which every home was a manor house and all the neighbours were squires, toasting each other with port from their dining-room windows. A great restfulness has since settled over this neighbourhood, like silence over a museum, and it seems that the mansions are nodding drowsily, waiting for genuine Victorians to return in carriages and re-establish their elaborately hierarchical households. Other housing estates and their people may come and go, but the years wash harmlessly over these suburbs. Tourists seem not to have discovered them, which is surprising as they amount to one of the most truly atmospheric regions of Edinburgh.

On dark winter nights, I wrap drunkenness and cigarette smoke around me like a snug cloak, and venture out to aimlessly patrol these streets, spellbound by their mystery and loneliness. The enchantment of these suburbs is most perceptible in “Lovers’ Loan,” a walled pathway which winds its way for about a third of a mile past the Grange cemetery and around the backs of houses, like a cat’s secret trail. Lovers’ Loan is an ancient trysting place which has remained intact as suburbs reared around it, but there is something quaint about the formal civic recognition of this courting ground – the council’s provision of street lighting and litter bins – as if the lovers have an ancient right of way bestowed by a forgotten king.

One fizzes up with a peculiar alertness when confined alone within this eerily still alleyway. It is like unexpectedly happening upon the stage scenery which is used in nightmares, and one anticipates the distant approach of airy, unimaginable figures, who will chase you with scrabbling claws. But I nightly drop into Lovers’ Loan and plunge down, down into the reality of men’s hearts.

One evening I approach a section which smells overwhelmingly of piss and a boy waits grinning, like a devil seated on a stile, and my eye falls to spot the bobbing purple phallus rearing from his tracksuit bottoms, and it rises to a grin of fathomless wickedness, and then it falls again to his tool. On another occasion, an elderly man with wisps of grey hair plastered across his forehead is standing in the moonlight with his pants around his ankles and horribly knobbly knees exposed, tittering like a hyena, with something shrill and desperate in his eye. Both of these characters stood apart from the world, like statues, and I merely raised my hat to them and offered a genial remark, before walking on, feeling massively refreshed by what I had seen.

But one night I was walking briskly down Lovers’ Loan, the clops of my own footsteps rocking me into a mild stupefaction like a mother’s arms, when an old lady stepped out into the moonlight and addressed me with a stilted, theatrical courtesy. Would I be kind enough to stop and help her for a moment?

She had one oddly severe blue eye, which seemed to have distilled itself into the most biting intensity like homemade vodka, and a mouth which hung open like an empty purse. The abominable, fascinating smell of her body was as unbearable as the heat of a furnace. It transpired that she was blind and that she was unable to make her way to the supermarket. She was homeless and she wanted a bottle of whisky to keep her warm for the night. Would I run and fetch the whisky for her? She had the money here… and she was now fishing about in a filthy plastic bag, occasionally happening upon an old, black coin, and it was clear that if she searched for a million years she would not collect the necessary money. Recognising what was required of me, I told her that I would go to the supermarket for the whisky, and that she could compensate me when I returned.

It was a cold night, I reflected grimly, as I walked away. Imagine crouching in the darkness of Lovers’ Loan, waiting furiously for the dawn. Yet once on the main road, I cleared my head of the old lady and, with a mild sense of daring, I walked straight past the supermarket. There were city institutions somewhere, their work as obscure and as distant as that of your kidneys, but they had agreed to take responsibility for the homeless. At the end of every month, the authorities help themselves to half of your payslip – they can surely afford to buy an old lady a drink.

Once home, I drank a ceremonial nightcap with my wife. In bed, I pulled the duvets over my head and burrowed into their great, warm womb. I slept immediately. Waking in the night, baked like a pie in the heat, I erupted from the bed sheets and my hand retrieved my penis. I slipped out of my boxer shorts, intending to masturbate into them as one blows their nose precisely into a handkerchief. I was masturbating effortlessly, the climax reared up in front of me like a surprised deer directly in the line of fire. I was almost there, before something unexpected happened…

The old lady’s face was floating before me in the darkness, with her deadly blue eye and her mouth hanging open stupidly. I just emptied of desire. I rubbed my penis uselessly, as if it was a light switch in a room where the bulb has gone, and the old lady nodded to me as her face faded into the night.

I was still annoyed when I awoke the next morning, feeling as if I remained in a debt to my body and it must be paid as soon as possible. It was a slow afternoon at work and I slipped into the staff toilets, determined to masturbate. I was soon working away quickly and efficiently, like a soldier, but as the climax loomed, I again lost my nerve. The old lady’s face had sailed shining into my thoughts, like the moon freed from some clouds, and a little of her abominable smell was suddenly in my nostrils. Pulling up my pants, I fled.

But an opportunity presents itself every few hours, like a cat appearing to be fed, and I was later at Renata’s apartment and we were tied up together in a frenzied, aimless fight on her sofa, giggling and occasionally making little surges for victory. My paw found its old familiar resting place on her breast and I grunted in her ear, whilst she settled back, submitting to my desire as subdued as a patient in a dentist’s chair. I turned her over and tugged down her jeans and knickers…

I was confronted with a bony, wrinkled posterior, the rind of a body hanging over protruding ribs, and the rich, stifling smell of age and abomination. There was a peal of hellish laughter in my ears. And then her face was descending like a hawk, its single blue eye unbearably severe.

“Biggy? Do I have to bend over like this all evening? Have you lost your cock?”

“I’m sorry Renata,” I harrumphed.


“You know, looking at your arsehole, I’m reminded that I have to phone my brother this evening. And I need to catch him quick before he leaves for work.”

Renata snorted with impatience. But in a few deft steps, I was in my shoes and jacket, and I had extracted myself from her company.

At the supermarket, I bought a handsome bottle of whisky. I knew that she would be waiting for me in Lovers’ Loan, and there she was, looking as unaltered as if not a single falling leaf had brushed against her since we last met. She took the whisky without a word and shuffled away.

[Two of Tychy’s best tales of enchantment can be read here and here. Ed.]