The past few weeks in Edinburgh, as if to offer recompense for the advancing winter darkness, we have had day after day of technicolour Turner sunsets and the sort of Rococo dawns that cry out for a few artfully placed putti—fat little boys lolling about on the tender pink clouds wondering if they should cut down on the carbs. But about this time last week we woke to a wild wind roaring its terrible roar and showing its terrible claws, rain sluicing and slashing its way through the city in the very teeth of the fierce gale. The streets were littered with the shrapnel of broken slates and sticks and even small stones—every kind of detritus. A single shoe tumbled past me as I walked to the bus stop—I could only hope the owner had not been blown out of them. I was wearing my emergency red shoes, just in case I needed to click my heels in order to get home again at the end of the day. In the New Town daintily dressed Christmas trees lay—baubles blown and lights dangling--in careless attitudes of dishabille, like drunken debutantes after a raucous night out.
The bus arrived at the stop, pushing a bow wave in front of it that surged across the street to join the small lake on the other side. When I staggered aboard there were at least twice the number of people normally on the bus. It was like climbing into a lorry-load of sheep being taken to market—people crammed in, smelling of wet wool and baa-ing frantically down their mobile phones, if only to say ‘well I’m on the bloody bus, so you take care of it’. Most of the city, it seemed, had left for work early or left their cars at home and were heading for Waverley Station where they would stampede off the bus, elbowing aside the Big Issue seller in their haste to get down to the platforms where they would hear the announcement that every train in Scotland had been cancelled. In the harsh interior light of the bus faces were grey and grim as they complained, carped or just bemoaned their bad luck at having to try to get to work on such a filthy day while they worried about their roofs blowing off or wondered if they should have built that ark in the garden. People moved up the bus to let others on with sighs, mutters, filthy looks and trampled toes as they were briefly distracted from shouting down their phones or surreptitiously shaking their blown-out umbrellas onto their neighbours’ shoes. Unable to see anything outside through windows as befogged as early-morning brains, the cold, wet, noisy bus lumbered along the stormy streets cold—a miserable ship of the self-absorbed damned.
The following morning it felt as if normal service had resumed. Completely still, as if the world was holding its breath, the slowly paling sky in the east looked a tender, washed-out shade of blue. Unlike the overcrowded assault course of the day before, the bus was unusually quiet. No one was talking; there was no tinny rattle from the girl with the ipod turned up so loud I fear for her hearing. No Kindles, no open computers, no ipads, no paperback books with the covers folded back. No one putting on their make-up or surreptitiously eating their breakfast or even gazing absently out the window. But every passenger had a copy of the free newspaper given away on buses and in train stations, the same photograph on the front page repeated the length of the bus. And as people stood up, got on, got off, we each looked up--only briefly--but long enough to make eye contact with someone; long enough to share the message. Nelson Mandela 1918 – 2013.