The sun had hung above Edinburgh for over two days now and most people doubted that much more time could be allotted to it. Whenever there is a clear sky above Edinburgh, clouds from all around Scotland scurry frantically towards it like rats descending upon a field of corn.
There appeared to be about a million students sitting or lying on the Meadows, in neat rows, waiting for the sun to depart. They looked like Catholics who are all assembled patiently in some public square before the Pope dies. Artur was crossing the Meadows on his way home from work. For a while, on Jawbone Walk, he was itching to join the sunbathers as well and then finally, as though planting a first foot into seawater, he stepped determinedly off the boulevard and onto the cool grass.
He gravitated towards a corner of the Meadows where the sunbathers were thinly spread. He climbed out of his rucksack, loosened his tie, kicked away his tight work shoes and lay down. He turned his head in the grass and a sunbeam placed itself on the side of his face like the warm paw of a bear.
Artur lay and unbent his limbs uneasily and listened to the pinprick clear restlessness of the Meadows. There is always that gaiety there in summer that, in the golden light, makes you think somehow of a medieval fayre day. Sprightly, disconnected music – a drum and a guitar – was issuing from within the thickets of bodies. The smells of cooking meat and marijuana bumped together like boats. Then Artur could pick out a loose but distinct pattern of thuds. A gang of young men in crumpled shorts were in a circle, their torsos glossy with sweat as they kept a ball bounding haphazardly in the air. Artur sat up, wondering whether it might be possible for him to join them. The young men looked as studious as if they were in the middle of a séance.
Suddenly the day cooled and the world seemed to groan and tremble from every blade of grass and from every leaf on the park’s trees. A small fretful wind had sprung up from somewhere, as though it had been let out of a bag.
Thoughtfully, Artur noticed a warmth beside his left hand. He realised that the sun was lying in the grass beside him. It must have slipped too far out of its orbit. Artur looked around to check that nobody had seen himself and the sun, before, quickly, perhaps even sneakily, he tipped the sphere into his rucksack. In the last instance, he had to take a handkerchief from his breast pocket and manoeuvre it using this. Once the sun was sealed inside his rucksack he inspected the handkerchief and saw that it was terribly singed. The grass where the sun had lain was also blackened.
A gentle smell of burning was now growing around Artur’s rucksack. Worrying that his work papers would start to smoulder, he pulled a large Tesco bag-for-life from the side pocket. He duly decanted the sun into this.
He climbed to his feet and walked his way home across the rest of the Meadows. Looking down, he saw that the Tesco bag was softening but not quite melting. It was not likely to give.
The sky was now a grid of clouds. The sunbathers were departing in waves, carrying blankets and wine bottles and barbecuing equipment. There was a mood of forlorn cheerfulness, maybe a relief that they were free at last to go back to their regular lives.
Artur’s flat was on the second floor. He could not think of any surface in his flat where he could deposit the sun without it incurring potentially expensive damage. There was only the bath and this was too damp. The sun might go out.
There was an old stone bird bath in the tenement garden. At this stage in the summer it was quite dry and the sun would be out of harm’s way here.
Once up in his kitchen again, Artur logged into Facebook and he sent a message to all of his Friends.
“Flat party at mine tonight. I have the sun here – for real! Found it lying in the Meadows earlier today. Bring beers and your phones for those sun selfies.”
Artur left his phone on the counter, he filled the kettle and left it rumbling distantly, and when he came back there were already several replies. E.g.:
“You have the sun for real? I mean for real for real?”
“No way man! It’s still up in the sky – I can see it – oh wait, no this is Edinburgh lol haha.” This comment had received over a hundred likes.
Artur resolved to go back down into the garden to take a photo of the sun as proof. Then a dire thought – one that had been ready and waiting in his mind for about fifteen minutes – shot down screeching and with talons outstretched. Through the kitchen window, he had been listening to the sounds of the children from the ground floor shouting raucously in the garden, along with the thumps of a football. He had just put two and two together.
He bolted down the stairwell. Out on the rug of a lawn, three small boys with beautiful café au lait skin were all scolding each other like sparrows. The largest boy’s chest was thrust out and his arms were swinging in agitation. There was no football to be seen and, more to the point, no sun.
“Where is it?” Artur demanded.
The children looked guilty and solemn. Artur saw that all of their eyes were pointing over the far wall and into Mrs Macallister’s garden.
Mrs Macallister was the biggest bitch in Morningside. She was so old that she had been probably alive when the word “bitch” was first coined and it had been probably coined to specifically describe her. She had no friends apart from her cat, Josephine, a creature so sour-faced that it looked ugly even in the loveliest of sunshine. Nobody knew what Mrs Macallister did in her life but to the children of the neighbourhood it seemed that she devoted it entirely to confiscating the footballs and tennis balls that came over the walls of her garden. They damaged the flowers – she hurt her back when bending over to pick them up – they left dents in her lawn – the reasons or excuses for why these balls were a source of such existential antipathy for Mrs Macallister would multiply through the seasons.
Would she confiscate the sun, Artur wondered. What exactly Mrs Macallister did with the balls that she confiscated remained a mystery to the neighbourhood’s children (and yes, they raked through her dustbins). The children vaguely imagined that they were mounted above her mantelpiece like the stuffed heads of big game.
Luckily, however, here she was, marching around to the front of the tenement in her matching baby-pink slippers and dressing gown. Visibly incarnated on their stage, like a bear in one of Shakespeare’s plays, her whole body was gritted with fury. Amazingly, she had the sun balanced on the end of a garden spade. Although still flaming it looked a little dimmed or cowed, as though it had been cooled somewhat by being in her vicinity.
“You’ve burned my pussy!” she hissed. “Her fur is all burned. Someone will have to pay for this – the vet’s bill will cost more than hundreds of pounds. Whose property is this?”
Artur decided to take a firm tone. Did she not know what the sun was or how it worked?
“This is the sun, Mrs Macallister. It is nobody’s property – it belongs to everyone.”
Mrs Macallister was promptly quelled by the sound of a man’s voice. Her jaws snapped open and shut without a sound. She normally bullied white-faced children – an adult had never before numbered amongst the neighbourhood’s petitioners for lost balls. All at once she stood aghast and uncertain, with the sun balanced on the end of her spade like an enormous pizza just out the oven.
Keen to press their advantage, the children immediately looked very responsible and they assured Mrs Macallister that no ball would ever sail into her garden again. Next Artur was so bold as to take the spade from her unresisting hands and slide the sun back on to the bird bath. He promised her that he would take it indoors so that the children could not meddle with it anymore. He apologised for taking up so much of her busy time.
The children dispersed, looking as though they had each swallowed a pint of laughter and they were on the brink of hiccups. For the first time in the neighbourhood’s history Mrs Macallister had suffered an ignominious defeat. She and her spiteful cat would be never restored to their original stature in front of the children again. Your common garden bully needs only to be dealt this correction once.
I shall not describe those hollow hours leading up to Artur’s party, with all of their anguished hoovering, tidying and fussing with fairy lights. You will be no doubt familiar with the pangs of preparing for a house party. The guests began to arrive after ten. Artur’s girlfriend Wicktoria was on hand to ladle out the sangria. The cavernous living room had been cleared of its furniture and the sofas had been pushed back against the walls to leave bare floorboards and the unexpected semblance of a dance floor. The sun was placed in its centre, still on the bird bath. The flat’s honorary fire extinguisher stood at the foot of the bird bath, just in case any of the partygoers were accidentally ignited by the sun whilst they were dancing.
There was chaos in the first hours of the party because everybody wanted to have a selfie taken with the sun. Soon a queue had formed and it snaked around the dance floor and out of the living room and down the hallway. Inevitably, the first selfie was never satisfactory and so everybody was allowed more than one shot. The trick was to stand behind the sun so that you were not silhouetted. One brave soul stripped to his waist and held the sun in his arms, snuggled under his chin. His consequent tan was so raw and smarting that bottles of cream had to be fetched. One partygoer recommended pressing a raw steak against the sunburn and then, quite bewilderingly, a steak was produced dripping from somewhere. Did somebody really have one in their handbag?
The flat journeyed towards the morning like a ferry full of holidaying passengers that is crossing a strait. At three am there was a peak of feverish, liberated dancing and then there was a long languid period when everybody lay on sofas and they were unable to talk. Artur had been manically drinking shots, frantic to get drunk, but when he was drunk he felt alone and afraid and so, to the uproarious hilarity of the party, he began to manically drink espressos from his coffeemaker. Somebody cornered him in the hallway and squashed a pill into his hand. “Eat it in little bits,” he was warned. Wicktoria looked bored and disapproving but she did not refuse the fragments that he brushed onto her palm.
When they awoke, the flat was stunning in its tomblike silence. Wicktoria lay in bed, fighting furiously to fall back to sleep again, whilst Artur roamed the rooms of his flat, hunting for any human body that could tell him what had happened. But room after room opened to nobody. The front door was hanging wide open. On dipping his head out of the flat, Artur was obliged to conclude that somebody had defecated in the stairwell. He felt far too delicate to deal with this now. At what time had everybody left? When had he and Wicktoria gone to bed?
In the kitchen he tried to drink a glass of water, but there was so little saliva in his throat that the water seemed, paradoxically, to burn him as though he was swallowing fire. He forced himself to drink half a glass before giving up. He retreated from what he plainly knew was afternoon light, back to bed.
“I am demolished,” he murmured to Wicktoria. Slipping back into place alongside her, he saw that she was wearing nothing but his own vest from yesterday. Wistfully, he registered that he had lost all of his sexual desire, as though it had slipped away amongst his pockets like a stray penny.
“Turn on the TV,” Wicktoria barked from under her wildly entangled hair.
The first channel to appear was broadcasting a news report about T in the Park. A lady in a tweed raincoat, who looked alienated and somehow like a stranded mother, was reporting back to the central studio. The scree of a vast crowd and a stage like a gaping hanger were arrayed illustratively over her shoulder. “And there’s been so much disappointment at T in the Park this weekend because the sky has remained leaden… obstinately, oppressively grey. Earlier today, the singer Morrissey led a mass chant for the sun.”
They were now showing a jowly, depleted-looking man with orange skin who was capering about and waving his fists in encouragement at the crowd. It was obviously a light-hearted moment in between two of his dreary songs. The words came singing in a surge that broke hugely against the stage. “WE WANT THE SUN! WE WANT THE SUN! WE WANT THE SUN!”
“Oh shit,” Wicktoria moaned. “Do we still have it?”
Artur could not remember the last time that he had seen it. In his panic, he was instantly on his feet and filled with the weightless energy of a ballerina.
As he darted into the living room, he was brought up short against the hallway mirror. Until now he had assumed that he had been wearing his boxers but, no, they were his girlfriend’s knickers. He bulged incongruously like a kind of leer amongst the frills.
In the living room, the bird bath had fallen over and it was lying in a deep patch of its own white dust. The sun was gone.
Had someone stolen it? Who should he phone? If the sun belonged to everyone, then how could he complain that it had been stolen?
Eventually, he found it again. It was lying behind the sofa and it had gone out. Unlit, it resembled a battered tin disc.
He went back to the bedroom. Wicktoria had hauled herself up and she was sitting dazed and frouzy. He asked her if he could borrow a lighter.
“There’s one in your drawer here. I think I used it the other day.”
Soon the sun was crackling away again. Artur had a plastic cat carrier in the spare bedroom and they decided that this would be the best means of transporting the sun when they released it back into the wild.
It would be necessary to take it to a high place. Blackford Hill was a pleasant walk away and it was big and bare enough on top for their purpose. Artur carried the sun flaming in the cat hamper. When they released it, it fluttered skipping along in the grass for several feet, as though it was loath to leave them, before it veered away into the gorse. When they looked again it was perched ruminatively on a distant outcrop. They kept glancing at it as they walked down the hill but they missed the moment when it jumped back into its orbit.
A little later the sun was high in the sky and the clouds above Edinburgh were floating away like a defeated navy. Wicktoria thought that the sun had winked at them.