Purfled but nearly there, he climbs on stubbornly, the sweat clinging to the back of his shirt. ‘Too old for this lark,’ he mutters breathlessly, calves burning at every step, remembering the days when, as a young lad, he’d sprint up, skipping up the steps carved into the hillside in a matter of minutes. Today though, it seems to be taking forever, as if he were climbing Everest; he’s stopped twice to catch his breath already.
It’s worth it though, it always is. Just for the view: like being on top of the world, the city stretched out below, the glent of the sun on the firth beyond, the two bridges, the mountains rising up in the distance. At least that’s what you saw on a good day. Over the years though, he’s been up in all sorts: he’s stood wrapped in the smirr of low-lying cloud; he’s felt his ears stung by the wind that whips across the moors and buffets the tufts of wildgrass overby; he’s sat there, basking in the benevolent midsummer sun; he even remembers coming up in the snow, looking down into the glen below, the fields blanketed white, the ponies gone, a baronial turret poking up through the trees like something out of a film.
With a final push, he climbs the last steps, staggering onto level ground. ‘A bit shaky on the old legs,’ he mutters, a phrase he’s come to use with increasing regularity of late. He makes his way over to the flat outcrop of rock on which he’s returned to sit for many a year, ever since his father first took him there as a young lad, to that ‘ayelestin’ place, as he called it, ‘cause it was there long afore us and’ll still be standin when you and I are long gone.’
He’d kept the place to himself: a sort of secret, although he’d never really thought of it that way. It was just somewhere he came to gather his thoughts from time to time, marking off the years in his life. He’d brought Jean once, when they were courting. Keen to impress her, he was left cold when she failed to appreciate its magic, standing expectantly, waiting for it to strike her, hiding his disappointment as they’d walked back down, consoling himself with the thought that perhaps it took time to appreciate the silence, the sense of stillness, the view; perhaps these things had to percolate your mind on their own accord. He’d brought the boys a couple of times too, although they’d been too young, their minds elsewhere. Today though, he’s on his own: Jean’s been gone a good eight years now, and it’s been a while since his sons have been home to visit. He wonders if they’ll come back here one day, seeking the place out in a forgotten corner of their childhood, like a stoor-covered box of photographs in the attic. He doubts it.
He picked the right day, though: bright and clear, a few puffy clouds hanging in the sky, the hills around him, their forests and moorlands, lush and evergreen in the mild, mid-May sun. He catches sight of a small butterfly fluttering past, with its delicate, tissue-paper wings. His eyes follow it out towards the reservoir on his left, then down into the glen, picking up the trees of the Water of Leith, following them as the peat-stained river wends its course through shady glades hidden amongst the city’s shadows, and on out to the sea, where a couple of ships are making their way slowly along towards the docks at Rosyth.
He plays his usual game, picking out landmarks, starting with the most obvious—the Castle, Murrayfield and Arthur’s Seat—before moving on to more personal ones, like the flat he’d bought with Jean before they’d had the kids, with its narrow galley kitchen where she’d spend the afternoons cooking, waiting patiently for him to arrive home from work, or the swimming baths where his parents had taken him as a child, or the public houses at the West End, where he’d occasionally stop off for a pint after work, the bars sometimes three or four deep, packed with men of all sorts, deep in conversation and exchanging jokes and banter. He can see the site of the old picture house too, where they’d gone for their first date, and the stadium further down the road where he’d watched many a match, the sunset at his back and the expanse of the sea visible over the terraces on the opposite side. He remembers a recording by Hector Nicol, quite the rage at the time, watching his team romp to victory, notching up the goals on one of those increasingly rare occasions. But like Jean, he’d stuck with them through thick and thin, although with the football, there had been more thin than thick. He supposed he’d been lucky that way.
He feels the sweat cooling on his back; a gentle breeze ruffles the air. He shuffles a little, trying to make himself comfortable, because after all these years, the damned rock hasn’t got any softer. He’ll stay a while, he thinks, take his time. He feels at peace looking out over the city, his city, with its labyrinth of memories, a vibrant city, thriving with trade and industry, a place where people felt proud and worked hard, where you could leave your door open at hogmany and didn’t feel intimidated by the groups of kids loitering outside the shops when you popped out to buy a pack of smokes in the evening, a place with a sense of purpose, confident its best days lay ahead. Another city, he thinks, from another time; now all he has left are his memories, and even those are beginning to fade from his mind.
The view’s still the same though, just as his father had told him. ‘Ayelestin,’ he used to say. That was just the word.