By: Christian Bot
Paper. Pen – or pencil, depending on what my tastes of the day dictate. A desk – amiably provided in the hotel room, middlebrow as it is. Now all that remains to be supplied is imagination – a flicker of creative genius, a fertile narrative conceit. Still it eludes me. What ought to take temporal precedence: a plot, or a theme? A soul, or a structure? Therein lies the rub. I twiddle my fingers furiously as I scheme, futilely it seems. Yet, yet, how much easier than to concoct a fable entirely from imaginative fancy would it be to levy the pen in service of my lived reality! Ah, I shall base the story upon my own adventures, producing my opus in installments as things unfold. An autobiography! Well, a semi-autobiography, for the frosting of excitement is usually wanting from the ungarnished pastry of quotidian life.
Here I am in Edinburgh …
A loss for words. Why do they come to me only with such difficulty? A scramble through my mental dictionary and the thesaurus of my memory. Ravenously I rummage through the corpus of the English language, theoretically enormous, of which I can grasp merely a portion. Edinburgh, Edinburgh … what follows? What words ought to append this fabled city of Stuarts?
… Dùn Èideann, head city of the Alban realm, whose immortal bricks are etched with the names of Bruce, of Mary, of the many Jameses. Of Hume and Boswell and Smith, of Scott and Conan Doyle.
Bah! Puerile, a catalogue of names. What talent does that require? Any child could write that. I would be more impressed with myself should I compose a sonata within a single octave, or say comment ça va? to a Frenchman with a barely nasalized n. The prose is brutal, even fifty shades lady would lash me if she saw this. To her credit, though, Cupid’s arrow does have an anesthetizing effect on literary scrutiny. Observe:
Ay, this be the city of Mary Stuart, glorious lass of the silken brunette locks, the well-rounded jaw and plump red lips. She be the one to paralyze a love-struck man with that coquettish grin, those ruby Celtic cheeks, the brown twin optic beads. Ay, thee, ill-fated angel of Fotheringhay, Scotian goddess unjustly mauled. This be the city that expelled thee, the city that cast thee southward to thy death. Yet four centuries in an earthen tomb cannot efface the splendour of thy painted image.
Objectively horrible, subjectively delightful. Now I can understand why there is money to be made in abysmal literature. I only need continue with this ugliness and I shall be a rich man, much in the same way that fifty shades lady has made herself a rich woman.
And here I am, here I am in that capital of ol’ Scotland, picturesque city of delightful contrasts. Here ascending the spiny rock lies the Old Town, quintessentially Gothic with its towering Victorian tenements. There is the New Town, nothing being more classical than this, ordered blocks of respectable, nay stately, townhouses, refusing all concourse with the chaotic jumble to its south, resolute in its aristocratic stiffness.
A little too florid, I reason, and at this point definitely unsaleable. Needs to be simplified immensely. Something more fit for the unwashed masses would resemble the following: I am in Edinburgh, Scotland’s capital. It is a picturesque city filled with contrasts. In the centre of the city lies the Old Town, a neo-Gothic Victorian jumble of tall tenements and winding streets. To its north is the rational, ordered New Town, the traditional home of Edinburgh’s wealthy, socially distant from the once-dilapidated heap of squalor just to its south. Not bad, actually. There is beauty to be reaped in simplicity, and therein has my genius struck a nail squarely on the head. One is free to criticize the above passage as too prosaic, insufferably bourgeois, and distinctly – like my hotel room, of course – middling. Oh well. Do my hypothetical critics expect a man whose life is lived in pursuit of questionable profit to have any qualms about wielding the pen in deference to the lowest common denominator of society? Has the community of literary connoisseurs gone truly mad with elitism? I need not wreak the decadent havoc of half-Shakespearian half-Burnsian three-quarters-Proustian prose onto the page when the austere style of Dickens will do the trick. Edinburgh does not need to be deified to be appreciated, nor can Mary Stuart, however pretty, be pitied unless she be tragic. The magic is to be found in a simple pathos, in emulation of the sharp-minded Greeks. If you desire a splattered omelette of effusiveness, I recommend that you read Homer and avert your eyes immediately from the present work.
But, oh! Fresh air! I am in desperate need of fresh air, lest this creative mind be smothered with the musty smoke of too long a confinement. Hitler was a claustrophobic and so am I, and that, save for our utter disregard for morality, is our only similarity. And in any case, I did not get shuttled across the vast Atlantic solely to be holed up in a hotel room. I must get out, and explore. The city of Knox was made to be savoured out in the open, along that golden mile from Edinburgh Castle to Holyrood Palace and their surroundings. Why not savour it, then? On an impulse as rash yet as ultimately rational as the inspiration that preceded it, I rush out my room, barely remembering to fully close the door behind me, and storm out the hotel’s entrance, gazing awestruck at the masonry of centuries before my eyes and the ghosts of a thousand Scottish legends who roam the streets. I make straightaway for the Royal Mile by the quickest route, a mere five minutes’ walk. There the tributaries of pedestrians roaming the narrow side streets of the Old Town swell into a mighty river of humanity, avid in their thousands to devour every brick and cobblestone that meets the eye, each one effused with history.
The autumnal freshness of the late October Edinburgh air, positing a happy medium between the bitter Upper Canadian fall and London’s perpetually rainy dampness, has the quality of reawakening the mind from its intramural lethargy like nothing else. The crisp but never overwhelming chill sharpens my senses and attunes the eyes to that which is cherished and beautiful. Propped up high upon a mighty rock, ascending above all else around it, Edinburgh Castle stands proudly behind its bastioned wall, the very symbol of Scotland in stone. Along the successive streets of the Royal Mile, a hypnotic jumble of ornate Gothic apartments interrupted by the odd church, and so on for block after block and leading inexorably to Holyrood. Enough with buildings. Far more endearing to my immoderate senses are the throngs of pretty Scottish lasses who in no short supply populate the city. Delightful wave after wave of pale-skinned blondes, of dainty brunette Gaels, of freckled redheads, well-built northerners sturdier than their English cousins but fully feminine, tall and hardy like their famous martyr queen, whose very surnames roll deliciously off the tongue – Ross, Stewart, Murray, Drummond, Bell, Macaulay, Campbell, Neil … and one of whom, no more than a chance passerby, particularly catches my eye. She is lean yet buxom, pallid but full of life. She is golden blonde, not a hint of brown hidden in her luscious locks, yet her eyes, which nature therefore almost dictates to be blue, are distinctly brown. Her nose is somewhat pointed, her forehead somewhat wide, but what some consider flaws I consider touches of uniqueness. She is, in short, my conception of a Celtic deity, an urban Ériu, the petit-bourgeois Venus of Edinburgh.
And as soon as she appears to romanticize this lonely day, she is gone.
Ring ring ring a ding a ling ring ring!!! So sounds the irksome, classic ringtone of my cellular, ideally set on vibrate but, by a quirk of absent-minded forgetfulness, squealing at its most piercing pitch. A spasm of the hand, racing through the copious layers of fall raiment to reach the pocket that conceals the phone. One definite ring, and no luck. Another begins to sound, and ends with equal suddenness. Onto the third, wherein I at last grasp the prize.
“Majunavadabirdinab atwak labialavanavatab ahootabin varu.”
“I am extremely sorry, but I do not speak Punjabi. Good day.” My thumb meets the red button at the bottom of the screen, severing the magic link to a nation three thousand miles away.
Ring ring ring a ding a ling ring ring!!!
No caller identification provided for me. But on some irrational impulse, I take a daring risk and answer.
“Pumpkin butternut hot tub.”
The passcode which I have been ardently awaiting, which merely to hear I have made the long journey to Europe, is at last spoken. A new task begins, promising profit in abundance.
“Good to hear from you, Mr. Alexopoulos. Are you ready for me in Paris?”
“Indeed, Mr. K. We have received a fresh delivery that is most promising. I take it that you are in Scotland at the moment?”
“Of course, as we arranged. But I’ll get to Paris as soon as possible. You can be sure of that.”
I am a man of my word. The cultural treasures of Edinburgh are in an instant rendered irrelevant, for the pecuniary promises of Paris immensely supersede them.