Retracing my steps

Part one: Oxford street to Old college

I stepped out of number 8 and blinked in the light despite its character, which was gentle, grey and dulled. The red door that had marked home for me for some three years swung shut behind. This is a short, quiet, parked car-lined Oxford street in Edinburgh, it bears little resemblance to its more famous counterpart. I set off towards the centre of town on an errand, and inadvertently begin a walk both immediately familiar and strange.

This street is the one best known to me in Edinburgh; I used to walk it every day. It mutates through the names Minto Street, Newington Road, South Clerk Street, Nicolson Street, South Bridge and North Bridge as it ploughs into the centre of town. For close to 15 years it has been in my consciousness. Back then it was just a dot, an island, the bus stop I got down at for the Odeon cinema, and then the road we crossed when the movie was over to wait for another bus home. Now the cinema is long abandoned and the pavement slabs come caked in stories. Covered with years of layers of my footprints, and of all those others, strangers and friends.

I note with relief that on the first corner everything seems to be as it should. The three pillars of society – the Holy Trinity – stand unchanged. These three shops: Kamco, Fresh Choice and Peckham’s, can provide you with anything you might want to eat or drink (except perhaps a chicken breast); for those Oxford Street years, our lives depended on them.

As I approach the first junction I know I will be greeted by change in the form of a Sainsbury’s, replacing the old Blockbuster video shop. I don’t mourn this loss; Blockbuster was not more than a landmark to me. Outside Sainsbury’s is a woman selling the Big Issue. She looks familiar, Eastern European with dark heavyset features. Thick hair tied back in a messy long ponytail that hangs down the back of her old ski jacket, and a round, uneven face. I remember her expression. It is a strong combination of sadness and resentment. I never found it easy to walk past her, yet always even harder to stop.

Each side road leading off to the left offers hints of other haunts: the meadows park where any day warmer-than-mild was celebrated as a glorious summer’s one, the university library, a bittersweet place of painful revision hours and triumphant completion.

A café called Central Perk is an interesting new addition to the street, though not one that excites me or draws me in. I love coffee shops very much, but I have quite a list of criteria to be satisfied and my first impressions of this one aren’t promising. The ‘Central Perk’ banner looks like it has been made by scanning a DVD cover and then blowing it up 25 times, a neon “Open” sign flashes and below it is the inscription “The real coffee and sandwich experience”. None of these things bode well for the coffee quality. This sounds snobbish, but it is the way I judge. Bonningtons deli stands where it always has stood. It was here that I would by tradition pick up a panini on the way home from a morning exam, mid-revision period, and I remember it fondly as a welcome break from the books.

At the next junction, Rankeillor Street, a boy aged six peers at me with one eye, the rest of him is tucked around the corner. Both the way he holds himself and the look on his face replicate that of a Hollywood action figure, Tom Cruise perhaps, or Daniel Craig. I almost expected him to barrel roll into the street, hold up an oncoming car and disappear off in it in smoke leaving behind the cries of his tiny assailants. Instead his mum appears and grabs his hand as she heads for the fishmonger. I step gingerly past the fishmonger’s threshold as I follow them, in memory of how often this pavement was wet with sloshed out water and ice from the shop, which came with a strong, pungent aroma.

Passing Scayles, where once I bought a guitar, and an essential shop: Edinburgh Bargain Stores, I find myself at Killimanjaro. My favourite coffee place in town is tucked into the charity shop stretch, where many a costume was created from other people’s throwaways. An Asian man stands beside a bus stop focusing on the Lonely Planet: Scotland book in his hands. What does the road look like to him, I wonder? How does the guidebook describe it? It is not one of the prettier parts of Edinburgh. Its shops are mostly old and peeling (or new and peeling), but I find comfort and warmth in their ugliness. Somehow these brutish grey stone dirty buildings end up looking beautiful.

We are almost there. I catch a glimpse of the back of the museum beyond the city café, evoking echoing halls and skeletons mixed with chippy chips smothered in brown sauce. The cold metal gates of the old college are locked. I peer through briefly at the courtyard beyond, and taste again the sweetness of completing a degree as I walked out of that final exam.

Sometimes I feel claustrophobia — a sense of being closed in by the familiarity that greets me at every step. I yearn for that which doesn’t remind me of anything. Yet these stones are old friends. Amongst them I find my old stories, and I relish them all. It is not easy to look forwards when surrounded by all this past. Yet I know that there will always be newness. Always a stone left unturned.

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