Caley Picture House, Dalry, Death, Drug Smuggling, Edinburgh, Ghost Story, Ghosts, Horror, Humor, Immigration, Leith, Ocean Terminal, Party, Sex, St Giles' Cathedral, Water of Leith, Water of Leith Walkway
Stacey’s party had been up in that stretch of Dalry that remains fresh and picturesque without yet being visibly gentrified. The five of them had been at this party since what felt like a few moments ago and what felt at the same time like hours that could no longer be counted.
The party had started at nine and then it had really started after one and whilst others had come and gone, in and around them, these five had gelled into a unit that seemed now to have a vast, eventful life behind it. They could have all been pilgrims who had adventured across mountains and valleys together, rather than being merely some chance partygoers who had spent several hours sitting in the same circle of seats.
They had drunk the moon under the table. Next, they had gotten through the most arduous hour of the morning, when Edinburgh emerges cool and pale and a little damp, as though it has been laundered in the darkness of the night and dried in the fluttering dawn air. During this acute period they had each concentrated steadily on staying awake and they had strived to maintain a rather distant conversation with each other.
You will surely know how when you’re into a party for the long term, your energy will occasionally drop in odd shelves and then, a time later and just as inexplicably, spike again. By nine, these five were glibly confident that they would no longer need to sleep anymore, that their depleted brain juices had somehow topped themselves up outwith the usual restorative processes. Indeed, they suddenly felt more alert than this languishing party was and so they burst out of it, venturing away towards central Edinburgh.
They had breakfasted at the Caley Picture House. It is not possible to eat anything other than heartily here. After breakfast, Pippa had followed Toby outside to smoke. Looking back over all of the hours since they had commenced partying, she felt very unearthly, as though she was startled by some wondrous depth that she had never previously known her body to contain. Toby, on the other hand, had grown dryly businesslike and matter-of-fact. A layer of his genial fuzziness was definitely missing. A full night without sleep, Pippa mused, might have even woken him up properly at last.
Toby gazed levelly at her through the cigarette smoke. “We’re keeping going?”
She nodded. “We’re keeping going.” When they had left their flat in Granton yesterday, he had casually mentioned that he would be working this morning. She assumed, however, that he had plonked out a couple of phone calls and rearranged this.
A month ago, Toby and Pippa would have left yesterday’s party before two. They would have made love in Granton and there would have been nothing dutiful or routine to it. In a month’s time… well, the lovemaking would be no doubt exhausted and there would be probably another girl in the flat in Granton. Pippa would have probably moved on in turn to whoever was due to follow Toby, to whatever the next item on the itinerary of her personal development was.
The party and this morning afterwards felt like a very fine interval that they had been granted as a gift, some extra time in which they were able to take a stoical appreciation in each other’s company. It was rather as if one or both of them was about to depart on a long train journey and they were whiling away their final hours together in the bar of a station hotel. They both felt the richness of the late-afternoon sunshine but its obvious melancholy pricked at them as well.
When they were back at their seats, only Roman was still there. The floor staff had removed his plate and he was sitting staring straight ahead. He could only access his interior world, it appeared, when it was hanging in front of his face like a television screen. His eyes were even darting faintly, though from what to what Pippa could not begin to say. After a second he glanced at them, frowning and relinquishing these native lands.
“The others are out smoking,” he reported.
Toby looked at Pippa. “Weren’t we out smoking?” he asked.
Roman jolted in irritation. “I mean, they have gone to the toilet.” He looked away and then he found that his eyes had come to rest on the rows of beer taps and so he looked back at them swiftly. “We’re keeping going?”
Toby nodded. “Yes man, we’re keeping going.”
He always looked a very tragic figure, this Roman, Pippa reflected, with a kind of tragic nobility always in his face and stark in the oil of his eyes. When you first met him you would see immediately, and objectively as it were, that he was a superbly handsome man. Only later did the copper clang of his true wretchedness hit you. He was a young Latin prince who had been condemned always to chase after the fattest and most luridly vulgar girls, who were in turn condemned always to disdain and tyrannise him, almost without being conscious of the unnaturalness of what they were doing. It was as if the animating spell had been chanted wrongly over Roman’s body when he had once been a statue.
He would invite one of these girls on a date to a fancy restaurant and when he received the bill his credit card would malfunction and he would spend the rest of the night working as a kitchen porter whilst the girl would waddle off with her nose in the air. Once a date had proceeded without such an upset but – Roman had marvelled to Pippa – when he had hurried the girl back to his flat he had been bewildered to discover that she had male genitalia. Puzzled and affronted, Roman had simulated lovemaking and he had been too perfectly courteous to make any reference to the discrepancy.
Leslie and Sahara were stalking back from the bathroom. They sniggered and their eyes flashed conspiratorially as they descended upon the table again. Their reappearance was always a shock and for a second you saw them clarified as raw, spindly predatory creatures, for whom the whole world was really nothing other than some bone-littered cave that they strutted about in. One had the cobweb-coloured hair bundled up in a cake on her head whilst the other had it dangling in sticky, twisting strands. Pippa smiled pleasantly at them but Toby looked away and, for a moment, Pippa feared that he would stand up and lead them out to smoke again.
Both women sat down and Sahara looked up and around at them to check. “We’re keeping going?”
Leslie replied by ignoring her. “We need to start drinking again, we are losing ground. Maybe we should get some tinnies from Tesco.” There was never any hope of disguising the incongruity when her moneyed English voice, which had been weighted to say things like “peaches and cream,” would land on a word such as “tinnies.” Somehow in this transaction the word “tinnies” was the one that sounded likeable whilst the moneyed voice sounded shrill and unreal.
Now Roman had begun to cautiously chat to these women, with his grave politeness. Toby had told Pippa that Leslie and Sahara were keeping Roman sweet because they thought that he might be a useful contact for them when it came to procuring M. Toby explained that they were mistaken, that Roman always consumed everything immediately after buying it and that his own dealers were even more calamitous than he was. The last time that Toby had phoned Roman’s dealers they were all lost in the Highlands. It had been after midnight. The dealers had been shrieking and yelping that a remote-controlled submarine that was filled with drugs and piloted from Mexico would be soon making a landing on a beach, “somewhere on the coast.”
Toby and Pippa both distrusted Leslie. To them she was always like a strange treacle pouring out of a container, which could lurch in any direction. Her oval face was obviously buoyant with a very controlling intelligence, an intelligence that would have in any other society made her a successful autocrat or technocrat, but in our own world it had somehow, on its first contact with our atmosphere, become instantly disabled and replaced with a kind of empty, malevolent whimsicality.
She was a woman whose eyes were always watching for forbidden corridors to sneak down and unattended glasses of wine to pilfer. You sensed that the circumstances of her character had allowed the daylight to fall in on alarmingly primitive selfishness, but this was actually declared from the outset, almost like a flag that she had arrived waving illustratively. If you were ever in a relationship with Leslie and you received a terminal cancer diagnosis, you would find that it had been implicitly agreed that she would shed you forthwith. She would not even utter a word about it.
Pippa was intrigued that Sahara had not been discarded years ago. Perhaps her beauty pleased Leslie, rather as a beautiful bangle would do, whilst her impressionability or her weakness of character meant that Leslie would be never gainsaid. You saw that if Sahara had fallen in with some nice, kind people then she would be angelic. Instead, she had ended up attached to Leslie and she had gone thoroughly rotten. But throughout this it was apparent that she had gone bad mostly through this one stroke of bad luck.
Their eyes were all now teeming over the bar, restlessly and almost wistfully. “It would be nice to go to a real sit-down bar,” Pippa proposed. Yet they each understood that their present whereabouts did not count as such. They could not deal with seeing the barman’s sudden blankness, when he realised that they were ordering cocktails at this time in the morning, or the frolicsome satirical consciousness of the people breakfasting around them when the cocktails were borne aloft back to their table.
But more than this: it was as if at this moment they had each grown truly aware of Edinburgh, or of the infinitely multiplying possibilities that awaited beyond the doors of their breakfast palace. And amongst the mumbled names of bars and pubs that were beginning to rise amongst them, one rang out piercingly in Sahara’s head, like a doorbell over all the innumerable whisperings of a house.
“Have you ever heard about that restaurant where a lady died?”
All at once, this was the place. They each immediately knew that, whatever the details that got them there, this was where they were going.
Sahara looked a little panicked when she saw how totally she had decided the question. “A Greek lady,” she babbled. “I heard that she choked on a fishbone.”
Toby nodded, smiling with encouragement. “And this is what this restaurant has going for it?”
They still all knew that they were going to this restaurant.
“It’s like a ghost story or an urban legend,” Sahara explained. “I went to work one morning and everybody was talking about it. If you go to this restaurant and you sit in the exact seat where she died – it’s in an alcove, as I remember – then you will be visited by all of the same sensations that she had, you know, experienced.”
Leslie sniggered. “Like… choking on a fishbone?”
Sahara blushed deeply and her hands flapped like little wings as she fought to rise to a proper explanation. “No, it is more all of the emotions, of what it is really like to die. It is meant to be an awesome experience… spiritual… like when people take mushrooms.”
They all paused for a second and then they had decided to let this one pass. None of them knew whether any of the others had ever taken mushrooms, but if they started on this then they could well get trapped in an eighty-minute conversation about it.
Toby was nodding, as though along to some distant steady music. “And where is this restaurant? What is it called?”
Sahara pursed her lips and she waited for a second and then finally she shook her head. “I can’t remember. I think it might be in Leith.”
“Are you sure you don’t associate it with Leith simply because she choked on a piece of fish?”
Sahara smiled sadly. “Maybe I do.” She was helpless for a second, having grabbed hold of what had turned out to be a largely useless scrap of an important story. A fishbone, if you will.
But Leslie was all at once resourceful and practical. She would deftly move this story on, as though she had taken a grip of the edge on a huge wheel. “Let’s google it. I’ll google: ‘Greek woman, Edinburgh, choked fishbone.’”
Alas, there was no news in the system about this. Maybe the Edinburgh Evening News had been asleep that day. Or else maybe choking on a fishbone did not sufficiently stand apart from the legion of fatal heart attacks, strokes, and accidental domestic electrocutions that were all too mundane to merit a place in the world’s archives.
They were each busy searching on their phones now. “So I’m going for: ‘ghost, fishbone, Edinburgh restaurant.’”
This returned results that were so disappointing that they did not even have any additional interest outside of what they were searching for. Google found that it could recommend fish restaurants by deducting the word “ghost” and ghost tours on the Royal Mile by deducting the word “fishbone.”
Next they had moved on to Instagram and Twitter, in case these contained some chance reference to the story. Nothing.
It was Pippa who had the brainwave. Wasn’t there a Facebook page for Greek people in Edinburgh? A place where they all gossiped and bitched together? A place where they shared news about property lets and jobs vacancies?
By now, they had all come to picture the Greek woman. A tiny, wiry, self-important lady, with her chest puffed out like a bantam cock’s. She would stamp about upbraiding everybody who was younger than her – everybody, practically – as if they were all just a gang of sneaky, predictable, dirty-faced children. She would sit down one evening to her usual fish supper and then BAM! They could each see her face frozen in astonishment, her eyebrows arched. She would clap her hands and hiss to herself futilely as the bone stuck.
It goes without saying that none of them could speak Greek and – I’ll give you this one for free – none of them would ever confer with anybody in Greek throughout the rest of their lives. They nonetheless thought that it would be a sign of respect if they posted their query on the message board in Greek. They thus deployed Google Translate to cobble together what they trusted to be the Greek for, “Greek woman, Edinburgh, fishbone, restaurant, ghost.”
Barely a minute had passed before a name sprang back.
“Fool For The Soul.”
Then, before they had had any time to react, the words “Fool For The Soul” had been posted three more times, by three different users.
Toby searched on his phone for “Fool For The Soul, Edinburgh” and he caught sight of a Leith postcode. “Yup, it’s Leith,” he confirmed. Perhaps Sahara had alternatively surmised that it had been a fish and a fishbone simply because the restaurant had been in Leith.
In the meantime, an evidently impromptu diagram had been delivered up to the Facebook page. It showed the crude biro layout of a restaurant with an X plied in red ink over one of the nests of seats.
Pippa’s heart started to thump when she saw this. “We’re keeping going?” she blurted out, out loud.
For a moment Roman’s gloomy eyes had rolled in sympathy towards her but then he had looked self-conscious and decided not to say anything. Leslie smiled. “Why of course we’re keeping going.” Pippa realised that, as if a hidden button had been pressed, they had all now activated themselves, with a general reaching for coats and bags. We’re keeping going, she thought blankly, with the dread still pounding, but then she too had stretched and punched her fists into the sleeves of her coat and she was now standing with the rest of them.
Now they were outside, filing onto a bus bound for Leith. Upstairs, they sat looking out of the windows, as the city was decanted. The people surprised on the pavements below appeared very trivial and distant and unknowing, like animals that had no notion of how the farm around them actually worked.
In Leith, they got down on Commercial Street. Roman suddenly wanted to smoke and the others thought that he was just buying time. Pippa sensed that he was being kind and really buying time for her. Then it occurred to them that it might be too early to respectably invade a restaurant and purchase alcohol. Moreover, they had just breakfasted and they did not think that their experiment should require promptly eating another meal. They deliberated and resolved to stroll around the harbour, until a time when visiting a bar felt more normal.
Why had Pippa grown so frantic and breathless? It was as if she had never heard of dying before and the news had suddenly broken and she was anxious that it be suppressed again and that everyone who knew be paid off. She had the impression that she was walking down a tunnel and that the walls were narrowing and narrowing unbearably. How could she turn and break away?
But very quickly they had escaped from the city’s noise, to an oddly tranquil stretch of pathway beside the Water of Leith. Here squirrels hopscotched jerkily up broad, cement-grey tree trunks and leaves bobbed and bobbed vastly, in the gusty anthem of the branches overhead. And it was here that Sahara, tingling with a cosy anticipation for the impending supernatural bonanza, paused to snatch at some words that had just caught up with her. The Restaurant at the End of the Universe. The slightly synthetic quality that these words possessed made her suspect that they had not originated within her own brain. Then she thought that they corresponded with the title of some book that she had once encountered, perhaps on her brother’s bookshelves. In the sureness of this intuition she was rewarded with a glimpse, a flicker, of archaic, pink neon tubes.
“Hey!” Toby cried out in annoyance. He was gazing down at his phone. “This restaurant is inside Ocean Terminal!”
They all felt immediately cheated by this. They had each imagined some variation of a geriatric restaurant from the 1960s, where you walked over cobblestones to get inside and there was expiring avocado wallpaper and plastic vines hanging from the ceiling and bare plasterwork above the tables with an image of the Parthenon in relief and snugness seeping lovingly from every detail. The sort of place where you would receive a pleasant frisson or a cheeky pinch from a ghost.
Yet when it came to Ocean Terminal, they each suddenly knew the restaurant in question. It had been fitted into a certain point in the shopping centre’s blankness, like an art installation, in such a way as to suggest that some men in overalls could come along and swiftly replace it with something entirely new within a couple of hours. There was a layout of wipe-down tables-and-chairs that a wolf could blow away like a straw house. There were low-hanging metal lamps and floors that were polished with a push-scrubber. There were pool tables and all of the lighting looked exaggeratedly unreal.
This is where we are now. Our adventurers had decided that the morning was rapidly growing late and that there was a danger that they were being left behind. They had made a sharp turn at a picturesque bridge on the Water of Leith and proceeded in a beeline to the faithfully waiting restaurant. Now they are standing with the whole facility laid out in front of them. They have already identified the table where the old lady had died.
“What are we drinking?” Toby asked brightly. Lately he and Leslie had seemed to be the only ones who had done any talking and this talking was always bright and innocuous, whisking them all along.
They agreed upon five Corona beers. “Let’s not take our seats until we have them in our hands,” Leslie instructed.
Toby had spun on his heel and marched off to fetch the beers.
The trouble was that the lady who they had pictured – a very grand little old lady, puffed out like a bantam cock – would have turned her back at once upon this plastic restaurant. She would have surely deplored the food and vowed bitterly that it was not authentic. Wouldn’t she? If one was in any mood to joke, one would have said that she wouldn’t have been seen dead here.
“So the toilets are over there,” Leslie directed. “Just in case one of us feels funny or if this experience is just too sick-making.”
“Toby is coming with the beers now.”
Quietly, Pippa’s hand had found Roman’s. He held it patiently, without giving it the squeeze that she needed.
“Here we are,” Toby proclaimed. The five beers were locked in a row behind his arm as firmly as if they were little cats. He smiled around at them all. “Well it’s now or never, I guess.”
It’s too late, Pippa despaired. Her face had fallen on the table and she had the impression that there was nothing now behind her, only a cosmic blackness and stars twinkling.
They each stepped forward and took a position behind one of the seats. There were six seats at the table and so one was left spare.
They each waited for a second, as if upon a signal, but then Toby had nodded and so they each gingerly pulled out their chair to sit down.
They each took their seats.
It was cool within this vast room, a room that was in effect a phenomenal hall where the air could roar from one end to the other. Nonetheless, such is the artificial climate within Ocean Terminal, and so faraway does the outside world seem, that you always feel faintly as though you are sealed inside the cabin of an airliner.
Two olive-skinned boys were playing pool and aside from the occasional squeaks of footsteps, as people came and went, the only clear sound within this interior was the precise clicking of the balls. The boys did not say anything and their mouths swung in laborious circles as they chewed gum. As soon as one of them had made his shot, the other was taking his shot, as if they were chess players who had five seconds apiece in which to complete their move.
There are long high windows at the far end of this space that look out over the estuary. It was not possible to make out even the sketchiest detail outside. A heavenly sunshine sung angelically in the acrylic of the windows and it slanted down sharply across the rows of tabletops.
A waiter was walking over to ask them about food or snacks but, recognising how frozen they were sitting, he veered away to check on another table
A mother with a pram and two racing small children entered the restaurant area. The waiter sidled over to her and they conversed, bargaining. She had clearly selected this restaurant because it was a good space for her children to run about in. The children seemed to be demoralised, however, by the desert of bare flooring and the sunshine that lay hauntingly across it, this fine light that had streamed from the surface of the estuary and was rendered sterile by passing through the acrylic’s density.
When the five or so minutes were up, Toby reached for his bottle and he swigged down all of the beer in one go. The others left theirs where they had placed them.
Roman left in a hurry, scuttling and with his head lowered. He would walk back to the city centre down the Water of Leith walkway. Pippa had assumed that she and Toby would be walking too but once they were outside Ocean Terminal a car drew up in front of them and she saw with relief that Toby had booked them an Uber ride.
A minute later, Sahara and Leslie separated outside the front entrance. They had not spoken since they had taken their seats and they would never, as far as I know, exchange another word again. Sahara barged her way onto a bus that was heading south to Princes Street. Leslie instead drifted to a corner of the harbour that was as lonely as midnight, where she picked at cigarettes that came and went. But eventually she too would catch her own bus south.
That night, Pippa lay in her bed and she smarted at the smallness of her life and at a ballooning feeling of total insignificance. She did not know if Toby was in the apartment as well but during that moment she was effectively akin to somebody who had been swept off the deck of an ocean liner during the peak of a storm, a person who was spinning helplessly in black, ravenous waves. Toby would have been as useless to her then as a little boat that was folded out of paper.
When Toby got back to Granton he transferred all of his various savings to a single American bank account. Next, he put in a phone call to Greg, his boss. Toby had spent three years training for the job that he currently held and in this position he was earning over sixty thousand pounds per year.
“Hi, fuck you,” Toby told Greg calmly. “You’re a fucking arsehole so go fuck yourself please.”
“Toby?” Greg’s voice immediately sounded professionally wary and it remained swerving in the air like a wasp, intent upon an explanation. “Is something wrong? Are you unwell?”
“I fucked your daughter,” Toby reeled off. “The big one, I can’t remember her name. It was after that away-day training picnic that you made us all go on. I got her number and I arranged to meet her in a shit hotel and I guess I was on some kind of power trip or whatever but in the end it felt meaningless to me. It was just so much nothing.”
“Toby,” Greg replied gently. “Something has gone wrong. You are in shock, I think. Please phone me back and we can both identify a solution together. Or we can find somewhere where you can phone where they can give you the help that you…”
“Fuck you, fuck you please. Just fuck off please and go fuck yourself.”
Toby had said his piece and reset the clock. Twenty-four hours later he would be in London and within forty-eight hours he would be in Detroit. He had an old crony from his Iraq days who now ran a private security firm and who had promised that there would be always a salary for him and a gun to slot into his hand. He would have to lie low for a while but they could sort out the paperwork, no problem.
After he had left his seat in the restaurant, Roman went straight to St Giles’ Cathedral. For a long time he lay face-down and spread-eagled in the dust in front of the altar. After he was finished with this, he rolled over and he lay very still and faraway, gazing up across the bowl of the ceiling. None of the people who passed him disturbed him or gave any suggestion that what he was doing was in any way remarkable. In a Catholic cathedral, a priest would have appeared and moved straightaway to attend to Roman with a load of tricks up his sleeves. It is the wisdom of the Presbyterians, however, that we are entirely and absolutely alone.
That evening, Sahara made the decision to enrol on a training course for residential carers.
Leslie floated around the city and she visited different nightclubs and although for a long time it would have been difficult for any observer to recognise her as a homeless person, this was what the fruit was ripening into. She did not think that there was any way in which she could go back to her apartment and sit in the stuffiness of her bedroom and be reconciled with its thick, inner-city silence. She sat on a bench in the Meadows, slumped very stiffly on its boards and sleeping with one eye open and watching.
After several days of this, she randomly phoned her mother.
“Hello,” her mother said very carefully. She had messed up the last dozen or so phone calls and she was already resigned to squandering this one as well. “How are you doing?”
“Not so good,” Leslie conceded.
There was silence.
The mother felt as though it was her turn to make a move in some nightmarish chess game where she couldn’t see almost any of her opponent’s pieces. “Thank you for the book token.”
“The book token?”
“You sent me a book token, on my birthday.”
There was more silence.
“I have a house full of books,” the mother laughed. She then quailed at how this had sounded strangely bitter and like a punchline.
The silence continued.
“Please talk to me. You don’t have to say anything about your work, just please talk. I guess you are no longer with that young man who you said you were engaged to, but of course you will know about these things better than I do. Just please tell me about… I don’t know, where have you been? What TV show are you watching? Just talk please… say… please, anything…”
Leslie had a dim memory, one of those ancient memories that has grown so luridly enhanced and recoloured over time that you can no longer tell if there is any of reality’s real paint left in its base. In this vision she had been a child and she had discovered a bedraggled swallow lying on the tarmac outside her house. In her dismay, she had borne this pitiful item in her hands to her mother, knowing that if there was only one person in the world who could rub it and bring it back to life, it was her.
But her mother had shaken her head in irritation and announced that there was nothing doing. The swallow had slithered down headfirst into the day’s black garbage bag, its body as fragile as eggshell obscured behind disgorged yoghurt pots and inside-out chocolate wrappers.