Recently, I saw a horse standing outside disconsolately on the pavement outside the ‘The Scotsman’ newspaper. The poor animal was wearing a large satin saddle cloth advertising a popular pizza delivery service and had a rather weedy looking man dressed like an escapee from The Village People, on its back. It was about as undignified as things could get for a horse, and you could see by the way it was holding its head it was feeling it and would have been humiliated had any police horses strolled past. Even a horse only a short trot from the knacker’s yard should not be subjected to such indignity.
Looking at this horse reminded me of the man who travelled on the bus for a time who was always dressed in tartan trews and a good waxed jacket, but looked in every other way decidedly unkempt. He was always losing his bus pass, so the drivers would issue him a weekly ticket until he got a new pass, which he would lose again fairly promptly. He had the most bizarrely nicotine-stained finger on his right hand I have ever seen: mahogany-coloured from middle knuckle to tip, with a satsuma orange cast at the outer edges, fading to a deep copper green at the tip. I half expected to see the end fall off some morning. He saw me looking one day and explained that it was what came of smoking discarded cigarette butts.
‘I pick ‘em up, you see--easier now that everybody has to smoke outside. They leave them on top of the council bins, don’t they? I suppose you are going to nag me to quit,’ he said, in a resigned sort of way.
‘Why would I do that? ‘ I asked.
‘Because you’re a nurse, aren’t you? That’s why you go to work so early.’
Having assured him I did not belong to the medical profession he started to chat to me whenever he saw me. It was always worth talking to him because he had an amazing sort of overlay in his head of how the city used to be and was always ready to share the fag ends of stories: incomplete, slightly frayed, the greater part of the information often missing--but always worth having a pull at.
One morning he told me about a roundabout not far from Holyrood, where there was once a public toilet in the middle. ‘It’s all planted up with flowers now,’he said, ‘because a police horse went completely mad one day while on duty, jumped over the railings right down into the area outside the gents--killed the horse, the rider and a postman on his way for a pee.’
‘Terrible, it was,’ he continued. ‘My grandfather saw it all because he was the head mason at the palace and at the castle. My grandmother used to say, if only he’d brought a brick home from work every day rather than a bottle of beer, she could have lived in a palace too.’
He reflected on this for a moment, shifting his dentures about with a small sigh. Just as I was expecting a sort of heart-warming, stickily sentimental Werther’s Originals moment he added: ‘my grandmother was a bitch.’