Lost High Street

Paul Rooney

Lost High Street

OK. We are recording. It's a lovely sunny day. On the tour bus. The City Tour. 'Its always sunny here', Aileen the tour guide says, 'but sometimes the sun is behind the clouds'. She says this with a wry smile. Utterly charming.

And here we go.

The statue coming into view is in Carrera marble; he has his lovely dog beside him. Marvellously pretty.

You have to be called Margaret to be a cleaner in the castle on the hill to the left. It's a rule they have there. Rich in tradition, this place. Unquestionably.

I'm sat here with my video camera, recording it all. For posterity. Or, I sometimes imagine, as part of some larger, secretively unspecified knowledge gathering process. I have a fertile imagination.

The English opium eater confessed there, on the left. He admitted it was fifteen 'quid' for a dead body. Gosh. Rather a lot of money. Fifteen. Mmm.

Alistair Sim born in the cinema to the right. Aisle G, cinema 2. Well, well.

I was just a kid, nearly 22.

Neither good nor bad, just a kid like you.

And now I'm lost, no fixed abode.

Just rolling down the lost Lothian Road.

Aileen talks us through it all, yes indeed. In her brown fleece and dark brown glasses. She says we have to re-train ourselves to stop and look at the places we visit. But the bus keeps going. She's perverse like that. You can't have a cathedral without a bishop, she says. There's no bishop, but it's still a cathedral. Remarkable.

I have dim recollections too, as I listen to Aileen's stories, of rambling around god-forsaken towns, decks of cards and women's lies. Vague memories of an apprenticeship, in an attic room in a city far from here, writing jokes for crackers, or dedications for gravestones. Or both. 'What kind of tie does a pig wear? A pigsty. And memory is a golden chain, that binds us till we meet again'. The economy of the whole city where I did this apprenticeship, I seem to remember, of the whole country in fact, is entirely based on the sale of pithy aphorisms, jokes, epitaphs or epigrams of this sort. What's strange, about my memories, some of them are of this place too. As if I've seen some of these sights before. And I don't mean I've seen them an hour ago, the last time I did the tour (I repeat this tour quite a lot, I'll tell you about this later), I don't mean that, these memories are from way before, some past life or something. A statue of a man standing on a dictionary, for instance, ahead and right, there it is. I'm sure I remember it. I'm also certain, somehow, that I've seen the lending library before, that building on the right. Aileen tells us that one Friday night she borrowed a rather long novel about a Mr. Bloom from there, and then spent a week locked in a tenement room reading the entire book in one go without eating or drinking. Other views trigger Aileen's stories, and my own dim recollections, as they fly by.

The pub, on our right, Defoe used to drink there, Aileen tells us, he was a secret agent for the empire. That's why he became a writer, he learnt to observe and report through spying, then got a taste for the treason of art: betraying with its immaculate deception.

A blue blazer was hanging outside this other pub, it's there, to the right, but Percy Shelley never went inside. He couldn't have, he was underage.

If tears could build a stairway, and memories create a lane, we would walk right up to heaven, and bring him home again.

Aileen sings a song to us as we go:

I was just a kid, nearly 22.

Neither good nor bad, just a kid like you.

I'll acknowledge now that I'm good and lost,

On lost Waverley Bridge I pay the cost.

Dim recollections impinge more and more often. Of some other time, some other life before the bus. Some memories are clearer to me than others, and get clearer by the day. These recollections seem like songs that have been taped over on an audio tape -- songs that can start to become audible again as the tape degrades with age, spurts of choruses screaming through the verses of the songs covering them like the clashing discord of a congested radio dial.

I remember pretty clear fragments, for example, of watching a tourist video on a TV set. A shaky camera is panning up and down spires, we see the fuzzy washed out winter colours -- mausoleum greys, guard-uniform blues -- we hear the young man talking as he's filming, telling us about what we are looking at. He is videoing an old city not unlike this one, the capital of an empire, the Eastern Union of Republics, that we from the Western Economic Community, where I come from, were enemies with. The two empires had missiles pointed at each other, so that fear contaminated the air of the whole world. The WEC was not at war with the EUR, they were just irreconcilable enemies. The man with the video camera was allowed to be there because he had been invited to a youth conference, to promote peace between young people in our empire and theirs. So the fellow is going round this place in the EUR, on a tour bus like me, telling us about the sights, mostly jagged, mountain-brown government buildings sullenly brooding in the grey winter light. The camera pans down into some public gardens below a dark castle right at the heart of the city, and zooms in on the craggy face of the volcanic rock the castle is built on.

Suddenly the man behind the lens says: 'An extraordinary business. There's an aeroplane. Its landing.' And sure enough a little bright white Cessna is flying around the shadowed public gardens, slight as brand new polystyrene on an endless grey-green sea. It lands, near the bandstand at the west end of the gardens, and everyone rushes over to see who it is.

It turns out to be a chap from the WEC, saying he wants to promote peace and understanding. He says he's just a man with a plane, not a spy, just a man, on his own. And the people of the capital of the EUR have hardly seen any foreign people, so they ask him what its like to live in the WEC. The man's eyebrows nervously rise as he looks around the gathered crowd, his tongue pushing out his bottom lip, like a child in thought. 'What's green and can fly?' the pilot says, 'A cucumber in a Cessna. Want to hire a Cessna? Stand it on some bricks.'

'Will you be able to fly away free?' one woman asks him. But then the EUR soldiers arrive and take the chap away, because, obviously, he is not allowed to fly his plane from the WEC all the way into the heart of the capital of the EUR.

'Why is 6 scared of 7?' the pilot asks the soldiers, with fear in his voice, as he is dragged away, 'Because 7 ate 9'.

'To the world he was but one, to us he was all the world,' a bystander says. And some other soldiers then see the man with the video camera on the bus, they start shouting at him and running over to the vehicle. Because, of course, he is not allowed to film things like the fellow flying his plane all the way into the heart of the capital of their empire. The soldiers storm the tour bus and take his camera off him, and then probably destroy his video tape. He in his prime was called away.

That is all I remember, but it is as clear as a spring morning.

We go round and round on the bus here, the same route, always the same. Nothing different. It's all lovely though, of course. Always sunny, always beautiful. I don't get on or off; I've never been on or off, not that I can remember. And I would remember that. I record and re-record over the same tape, again and again, but it's always the same footage in every last detail, the tour never changes one tiny bit. A modicum of variety would ameliorate any numbing monotony. If there were any monotony. I'm not saying there is. Variety wouldn't be a problem, is all I'm saying. Being able to get off the bus, one could say that this would be some variety. This is a for instance.

And sometimes, as yet another tour winds its way round, I think of the man who flew the plane into that tourists video. I think of the fear on his face. And sometimes I think that maybe that chap with the video camera was me. Maybe I never saw the video on TV, or anywhere else; maybe I was the one behind the camera. That's how I can remember it all so clearly. And then I think that this -- me being on this bus -- this is my punishment for being there, for videoing it all. My punishment for being a spy. I could have been slapped about so much by the soldiers when they stormed the bus that I fell into a coma. And my dream, in my coma, is of the tourist bus endlessly going round this capital city -- which is probably the capital of the EUR, going by that massive castle over there -- my coma dream looping forever like an Alesis drum machine. Until the power is turned off. But then I realise that's all rather silly. Silly. How can you know if you are in a dream? Only at the moment of waking, I would guess.

Am I about to wake up?

No. Still here.

And I point my camera at Aileen. And she sings her song. And we go round and round. Thoughts return to scenes long past, years roll on but memories last. In a way, I would like it to be true. That I was, that I am, a spy. Turning over secrets, that's what I want to be doing, if I could find any, smuggling them through borders in the dark. Bringing them all back home to a hero's welcome, then wondering who will play me in the film.

The souls of the dead haunt the place where they died, Aileen says, as she points over at the display boards for the walking ghost tours. The souls carry on doing what they were doing just before they left us, repeating it without variation forever. They are stranded like this if they die far from home and they're body does not return there, or if they have committed an unabsolved crime.

I will lift up mine eyes, up to yonder hills. I look up from my viewfinder every now and then, hoping for the speck of white in the sky, quickly looming towards us, like a chip of lens glare splintering out at us from the ever-blazing sun.

Another plane to video.

Then there would be more soldiers to take me away. To somewhere else.

Rest after weariness.

Sweet rest at last.

I was just a kid, nearly 22.

Neither good nor bad, just a kid like you.

And now I'm lost, I admit defeat.

Just another soul on the lost High Street.

© Paul Rooney, 2008

With acknowledgements to Aileen of The Edinburgh Tour, and Hank Williams. With thanks to Emma Rushton and Derek Tyman, and Dr Robin Stott, the man who videoed the flight of Mathias Rust into Moscow, 28th May 1987.