Edinburgh, September 2012
THE EXPEDITION to the nearest hardware store seemed to stretch with every step and the white-grey balm made me squint. Meandering through the adjacent park, my destination was within sight. My body felt supple and light from weeks of training at home and reversing dietary habits accumulated over a lifetime. Despite fatigue setting in, I felt purposeful and grounded.
Between thinking how paramount it was that I get the materials I needed to build my precious poly-tunnel and the prospect of pulling my first potatoes in time for Christmas, I mulled the strong sense of impending change that I had felt that whole summer. Miles away, I didn’t expect the speed bump. Before I knew it, I was spreadeagled on the tarmac.
My left knee and right palm took the brunt. As I rocked my butt on the ground, nursing the wound visible through the hole in my jeans, I was both angry and in shock. About fifty yards either way, huddles of walkers gawped but offered no assistance.
I’m fine, I’m fine.
No I wasn’t. I rued that no one thought to check I was okay. I stayed the tears until I felt ready to rise and continue on my way.
Story of my bloody life.
How many times had I fallen on my arse only to have to pick myself up again – usually on my own and only asking for help when I had no choice. I had lost count. But still, I had come a long way in the four and a half years since I had started my new life with Alex.
8 May – October 2008
MY CHAOTIC marriage to an English artist was not quite a distant memory. My exodus at the onset of the UK banking crisis had brought to an end a roller-coaster that was interesting and eventful as well as fraught. Emotionally exhausted, my only desire was to scrape myself off the floor and start over.
I had arrived in Edinburgh with nothing but a holdall and the clothes on my back, declaring myself homeless at the housing office after one night on a sofa. In no time I had been taxied to a hostel in the north of Edinburgh. Having lived in temporary accommodation in the early nineties, I wasn’t at all anxious and looked forward to a new adventure. Fully prepared to sleep on the streets if necessary, my glass was half full. It was bliss to stroll into the institutional walk-in shower, scrub my woes and warble No Regrets.
Despite its failure, I was well aware that I was the stronger for my marriage. Deep within something needing attention had somehow been ‘fixed’. I had gained an edge that had hitherto been lacking and was better equipped for whatever lay ahead. However, unable to transplant my social circle. I hadn’t doubted for one minute that, as the one that had abandoned my marriage vows, I was persona non grata. Being baited into defending my actions was not a position I ever wanted to be in.
* * *
ONE OF the things that had sustained me in the face of my troubles was a strong sense of mission. This I had had since childhood, partly fulfilled through being married to one with his own calling. My husband’s work was creative and powerful, enabling me to feed my own inner artist while playing Santa’s Little Helper. Some of his work bore my stamp too.
Self-knowledge and purpose were more important to me than wealth. I had once said to my husband that I wanted to “have enough money to do the things I wanted to do, fulfill my purpose on this earth and die with dignity”. I could no longer recall what might have prompted those words.
“But what about having a house and all that stuff?” he had asked.
“I do want the house and the car and all the trappings but they aren’t the end, only the means.” Had his question been worded differently, I could have given him a different answer.
What we both did share was enhanced intuition. Sometimes my own spidey sense was a blessing but more often that not it was a curse. I called my tendency to think too deeply my ‘Sarah Connor complex’, the only way I could think of to adequately describe my apocalyptic tendency to see the longer view. The rest of the time I was just plain scatty, perhaps from trying to walk too many paths and an inability to put my brain on standby.
* * *
HAVING BEEN born to a stereotypical alcoholic father, whose death in 2002 had been almost a blessing, and a paranoid schizophrenic mother now living in supported accommodation on the other side of Edinburgh, I had always valued my mental health. My own shrink, I got by with the minimum of outside help except through a meager support network. I was thankful that I was born with the mental capacity to do this. That I was not in a psychiatric ward myself was nothing short of a miracle.
For as long as I could remember, I had indulged in elaborate fantasies, my own personal VR deck. It might well have been a waste of precious time, but it did enable my mind if not my spirit to withstand the gauntlet of daily life. Each fantastic episode, usually triggered by a movie or a book, entailed a reworking of the lead male character. In the final months of my dying marriage, my fantasy life revolved around improvised versions of Gerard Butler’s Andre Marek in Timeline.
As for my physical well-being, despite my earliest years in and out of hospital, I counted my blessings that my health was better than most, in the full knowledge that this had everything to do with what I put into my body and trying not to abuse it.
My belief in a higher power was just as strong now as it had ever been. From the moment I walked into the homeless hostel, I felt a protective cocoon around me. Real or imagined, it got me through.
* * *
IT WAS day two at breakfast when I overheard the low tones of an animated conversation between two fellow residents. One had a nasal Glasgow twang, the other I couldn’t quite pin down. Intrigued, I managed to discern his name. Alex. His persona had a reassuring and protective quality to it. He seemed so ‘normal’. What was he doing here? But then who was I to talk? Highly articulate and to all appearances more socially developed than the other residents I had met thus far, perhaps he too had just fallen on his arse. He struck me as a male version of me.
* * *
ONLY WHEN I got moved to my own temporary place a couple of months later did Alex and I get together. Keen to avoid repeating the mistakes of the past, I had made a conscious effort not to throw myself into the drink with both feet, at least not until after I had left the hostel. I was also making trips back to England to tie up loose ends with my husband and collect more personal belongings; I had no desire to muddy the waters by diving into another relationship. Of course, until we did start seeing each other, there had been no guarantee that the attraction was even mutual. It was only a feeling. A knowing of how things could be.
* * *
THE MORNING after our first night together Alex dropped the bombshell that he was a runner. The moment he left my flat for work, I entered a state of premature grief. I had come so far, only to regress, back to a far-off place in which I couldn’t bear to be.
The fear of abandonment that had once haunted me, my relationship failures of the past, replayed in rapid succession, sometimes in rewind, then fast forward. Embodying the horror was the hazy aura of a man on a stair holding a cigarette. An empty expressionless husk, devoid of anything except a suggestion of a face. And that dreadful tightening of the gut that told me what he was, even if I didn’t know who he was. That his identity eluded me was a blessing.
After a few days and against my better judgement, it was I who broke the silence. We met again and through some bizarre fluke a relationship began to form.
That we had even met in the first place in a homeless hostel of all places, we both agreed, was nothing short of an act of divine intervention.
* * *
I JUGGLED a new temporary admin job with taking my turn to look after Muttley, the feisty Airedale terrier I had left behind. Muttley had been my guardian angel through the tough times and my husband was having understandable difficulty coping with him. We both knew that it was only a matter of time before he would have to be re-homed. Our ‘child’ was one of the reasons I had stayed.
I kenneled Muttley during the week, taking him at weekends, until in the three weeks leading to re-homing, it seemed fairer on both of us to leave him at the kennels and visit. He had been raised in that environment. The manager had an obvious soft spot for him, which Muttley exploited like the accomplished little mercenary he was.
* * *
IT TOOK months for Alex to get his own place. When he did, we spent much of our time there. The novelty of having my own place was wearing thin. Adequate but devoid of any homely character, thank God it was temporary.
Our relationship was an earthy one. After years steeped in complexity, esoterica and unfulfilled lofty ideals, not to mention the lack of separation between domestic and professional life, it was refreshing to think of nothing other than how to keep a roof over our heads, what to eat, what to drink and who should go on top. For the first time in a long time I felt grounded. I knew that it would take me months if not years to recover from the previous chapter of my life.
The emotional security of life with Alex, even when we were apart for long periods, meant that I could finally relax. For a while the highlight of a winter’s day was sharing a bottle of Buckfast disguised as a bottle of coke. We would walk for miles, high on caffeine and thanking our lucky stars that, even as poor as we were, we had landed on our feet. That buzz when we earned fifty quid on a vacuum cleaner discarded by a roadside that we’d ‘restored’. Battle-weary soldiers of outrageous misfortune, that was us.
The bottom of the ladder was not the worst place to be. The recession was kicking in hard. I called it ‘the humbling’, that moment you are stripped bare, left to reassess your values and discover what is truly important. However, no matter how I chose to romanticise it, without the welfare system, I could not have survived. My mother lived in a care home, my brother and his family on the other side of the country. And since moving away from Edinburgh I had burned my bridges with most of my friends. How easy it would be to lose the few I still had, were I to impose and outstay my welcome.
Most of Alex’ working life had been spent as a chef. As is often the case, that profession did not make for a stable life. Living rough had been a lifestyle choice. Like me, he had often felt assisted by some unseen hand. Seeing himself as a savvier version of Forrest Gump, Alex was by far the most unique person I had ever met. I was in awe.
The stories that Alex told me during our evening sorties made me laugh and my mind boggle. Having myself experienced a bellyful of synchronicities, most of which I knew I had already forgotten, I knew only too well how life could be stranger than fiction. I suggested he write a book. Or just let me write it.
Before I had the chance to share my own complexities, he granted me amnesty. Which was maybe just as well, for I had known since my arrival in Edinburgh that I was ‘missing’ a chunk of my own story. Whatever it was, it was heavy duty, so best to let sleeping dogs lie. If and when it did come back to me, I would deal with it then. It was bad enough that parts of my marriage were already a blur, which I attributed to so many changes occurring over such a short space of time.
For now, just live. Enjoy the moment.
8 October 2008
I WAS gutted when the time came to rehome my beloved Muttley. The last moment I set eyes on him was at the kennels. I had arranged for a pet courier to transport him from there to a rescue centre just outside Manchester and, to spare me the agony, the manager had offered to take care of the formalities. It was bad enough leaving him, knowing I would never see him again. I dragged myself to the bus stop, hoping no-one would see my tears through the pissing rain.
FINALLY. My own flat. The walls were grubby and the bare floorboards riddled with carpet staples, yet I knew the moment I walked through that door that this was the place for me. The relatively straightforward divorce from my husband, along with bankruptcy, followed, Muttley now in his element among the Herefordshire bluebells with his Great Dane brother Scooby.
Meanwhile, Alex had secured a lease on the kitchen of a pub in Leith and had asked me to join him. I knew working together was a bad idea but we had little option but to give it a go. After slogging our guts for little reward, having our hands tied by the owners and a misunderstanding in the terms of the agreement, we bailed and made the hasty decision to move Alex in with me.
Our first weekend break was the following March. It wasn’t much by most people’s standards and the wrong time of year but we were desperate to bolt. With no plan and a tight budget, we drove around Perthshire, where Alex showed me his old haunts, never stopping anywhere for long except in Comrie. The name rang a tiny bell but then so did a lot of places. After a game of pool at one of the local pubs, at the end of which Alex donated his winnings to the local fire service, we splashed out on an expensive meal and headed back to our freezing tent.
During the remainder of 2010, Alex relief-cheffed in the Highlands. Suddenly being together twenty-four seven for short periods then apart for so long was a bigger strain on both of us than the pub. We considered ourselves a couple but to all intents and purposes, we led separate lives. I often wondered if my friends and family believed that Alex existed. A feeling of limbo hung over me.
My practically non-existent social life was less of an issue. My growing desire for self-sufficiency meant I didn’t feel the need for one over and above any personal contact I had at work. I continued to temp, selling CDs and records on Ebay on Alex’s behalf while he was away. He was working by now at a backpackers’ hostel in Kyleakin on my native Isle of Skye. I resented being Santa’s Little Helper yet again.
I subscribed to a DVD rental to stop myself losing my mind. My fantasy life was richer than ever, fluttering between Gerard Butler and Sam Worthington, fuelled by about half a dozen Butler movies over a 10-month period and escaping into the Avatar world of Pandora at every opportunity.
NOT FOR the first time in my life, my professional confidence was at an all time low. I questioned my ability to get back into the workplace and my CV was a mess. Even the system that I had prided myself on my ability to navigate seemed less and less equipped to deal with someone whose life didn’t fit the boxes. I wasn’t even sure I could face ever working in an office again. However, the current economic climate meant beggars couldn’t be choosers.
What I wanted to do the most was write. Three half-written outlines for novels gathered dust but, as had always been the case, I couldn’t afford to take them any further. I kept my hat in the ring by temping, but with every day that passed came the realisation that my employability had dissipated the moment I had left Scotland in the name of love.
Resigning myself to the reality that at such a late stage in my life, my fortunes were unlikely to improve, I threw myself into an allotment. Not put off by not having my own garden, I joined a share scheme and my focal point became growing my own food on someone else’s land. It was demanding, and often soul-destroying, but it grounded me. I felt in control of my own destiny, knowing that if or when the Global Food Crisis kicked in, I could at least feed myself and Alex. I drifted to sleep at night obsessing over carrots and bragged about the colony of worms on my balcony digesting my food waste.
I WAS still temping, the garden swallowing an increasing amount of my time, when out of the blue I began to sense an impending polar shift. A personal, not a literal one.
Considering my life had not so long ago been so close to if not over the edge, it had taken a few years for me to notice that I had not heard a cheep from the Fates, and at this moment, satisfying though it was, my life had never been more mundane. Perhaps my apocalyptic view of the world had been driven by a sense of having been abandoned for missing the opportunity afforded to me to fulfill my purpose.
The feeling of imminent change was accompanied by one of renewed optimism and a desire to take greater pride in myself. Even if I didn’t know how to explain it or where it was leading, in my mind’s eye I saw the beginnings of a road opening before me. Now that I felt that the psychological barrier of the 2012 Apocalypse had been removed, I knew that I might have a future after all. Or was it the other way around? Destiny was whispering my name. Just like the old days.
Edinburgh, September 2012
ON MY way back from the hardware store, I walked past a man in a suit talking to someone by the roadside. A coin dropped from his pocket, which I rescued and offered to return. Too embarrassed to lay claim to the paltry sum of two pence, he denied that it was his. I couldn’t bring myself to return it to the ground and it didn’t seem right to stuff it into my pocket, so I clutched it and continued on my way.
As I traversed the park to cross the footbridge, I had the bright idea of tossing the coin into the burn and making a wish. So I made an amateur attempt at flipping it over the side, eyes closed. It landed on one of the supports.
Shit, that bodes well.
I delved into my pocket and drew another two pence piece. On my second flip into the fast-flowing river, I renewed my wish, this time with greater intent.
What was my heart’s desire? Quite simple, I had wished for Alex and me to be brought some good fortune. Wasn’t so much to ask, was it?
* * *
ONE WEEK later, Alex called from Skye.
“You’ll never guess what”, he gushed. Prolonging it for effect through a cigarette, his excitement was palpable.
“What’s happened? Go on, spill.”
“I found a bistro up for lease …”
“Really? And? What, in Edinburgh?”
Wherever it was, a further puff told me that he had already made his decision.
Lochcarron. A sleepy backwater that I had fixated on from the Inverness to Kyle of Lochalsh train on my last trip north. Despite the tribulations of the pub in Leith, I knew that it was inevitable that I would be part of the deal. Whether I was happy about it or not, this was the good luck I had been waiting for.
Within days, though, once the initial euphoria had worn off, the feeling of impending change persisted. The seismic shift in the air was something else and it had nothing to do with anyone but me.
Copyright © M K MacInnes 2020