“I’m no sure we have the energy for all of that, Dave,” said Neil. “But it’s quite the memory trip, I’ll give you that.”
“Aye, it is. Be good to see what’s changed and what hasn’t, don’t you think?”
“Depressing is what it’ll be, if you ask me.”
“Depressing?” chuckled Dave. “Wait till I tell you what the last stop is, pal.”
“The last–? Aw, no Dave. Please tell me it isn’t the bloody cemetery.”
Dave nodded, the smile never leaving his face.
“Come on, Dave, you know I hate those places. What have we lost there anyway?”
“We could pay old Hedge a visit, for starters. I’ve only been there a couple o’ times since the funeral. When were you last there?”
“The funeral. I’m telling you, that place brings me well down.”
“Come on, Neil, it can’t be that bad. I’ll be there too, don’t worry. Plus, Hedge ain’t the only reason to visit. It’s part of our trip to the past.”
Neil raised an eyebrow at him.
“Fancy that. You don’t remember, do you? On our first year at university you became obsessed with Gothic literature – or rather, with some lady taking a course in it. What was her name, now? Brenda? Bridget? It was something with a B, I’m sure…”
“Barbara!” guffawed Neil. “I’d totally forgotten about her. Probably ‘cause I never did get anywhere with her.”
“Well, you certainly got to the cemetery with her for some godawful readings they did every month. ‘Course, you had to drag the pair of us with you. Didn’t want us to miss out on freezing our behinds at four in the morning while you tried to cajole her.”
Neil shook with laughter at his friend’s take on the events, never denying any of it. As he wiped the tears from his eyes, Dave saw on him that boyish smile he’d seen so many times during their student years, the same one that had charmed so many women at countless parties, gatherings, conferences and demonstrations. He’d always believed it had worked on that Gothic woman, though. The latest revelation made him wonder how effective the smile had actually been with all the others.
“OK, OK, fine. The cemetery is an inescapable stop on this nostalgic tour of yours. Why the last stop, though? If we do go through your entire list, it’ll be dark by the time we hit the last one. Do we really need to leave the creepiest of all for such a time?”
“Hey, you never took us there at noon, did you? You won’t be getting out of this one,” replied Dave, barely managing to fight the catch in his throat. “If you’ve got any complaints, direct them to Bella.”
“Whatever. Now, let’s get going.”
The sun was only just up and was lifting a thin mist out of the wet streets. The smell of dew and earth and boiling barley filled their nostrils as their walking sticks tap-tapped their way up the road, leaving the gurgle of roiling waters behind.
They navigated their way between the long shadows of the buildings that dominated the New Town skyline, where the student flats and the parties had given way to the letting agencies and the lawyer firms. They passed the window out of which they had once roared Auld Lang Syne, the three of them having been fobbed off by their Hogmanay dates – the two of them couldn’t agree on the exact window it had been from, but they were certain of the building, in any case.
Around the corner from that, they peeked down into a reconverted basement flat where they had spent the most memorable of Halloween nights. It rained buckets that night, so the place had been flooded almost up to their knees. The three of them had sat on the back of a sofa, watching the bottles of wine and whisky bob along while a group of vampires and cowboys danced in a corner like there was no tomorrow. When the firemen had finally arrived to help pump out the water, they had been received with a barrage of compliments over the authenticity of their costumes and were asked where they had purchased them. By the time they had left, a couple of bottles of whisky had gone missing.
Further up New Town, they visited the locations of so many pubs and bars they had often frequented, most of them now high-end stationeries, posh seafood restaurants that didn’t even sell a proper fish supper, designer boutiques and a thousand other tourist traps. It was in those places that they had celebrated birthdays and exam passes, cheered during football finals and gawked at war images, kissed women and been slapped in return.
They didn’t stay for too long, though, choosing instead to spend more time in the Gardens separating the New Town from the Old. Here, the trimmed grass looked the same as it had decades earlier. They were certain they recognised patches where they had once lain on bright Sunday mornings, nursing hangovers with a sausage roll in one hand and a can of Bru in the other. The curious trills of the birds back then were mostly absent now, though, and the presence of the labouring squirrels was a shadow of what it had once been. The number of hungover students had also diminished, but the pair of them never could decide whether this was a good or a bad thing before they headed off to their next spot.
The Castle esplanade. One of the taller places in the city – certainly the tallest they could still walk up to at their age. From up here, the views North and South were far and wide, the early morning mists long displaced by the playful midday breezes. Up above, a brilliant sun sat perched on an immaculate cobalt sky, keeping at bay the few wisps of clouds that watched tentatively from a distance and lighting up the crowns of the trees in the Gardens down below. As the golden rays hit them, they burst into Autumn flames of turmeric, ginger and saffron, reminding them of the fireworks that had exploded above on that fateful night when they had each met the love of their life.
As the sun climbed down, so did they, progressing through a wide array of memories and milestones – the vast hall where they had graduated and seen their children and grandchildren graduate, the expanse of the Meadows where their children had learned to ride a bike, the golf links they had taken their future wives on dates to, the auditoriums where they had danced to exhaustion while the band seemed never to tire.
With the sunset only an hour away, they reached the grounds outside Parliament. Neil pointed a wistful finger at the hulking Crags at the top of which he had proposed to Harriet. The ascent to the Castle had been enough struggle for one day, though, so they were satisfied to look at it from a distance, sitting across from the Palace. From there, Dave could see the tall walls of the cemetery, only the tallest memorials and towering yew trees poking out from within.
“Last stop is just over there,” he nodded, once again fighting the heart-wrenching feeling that threatened to well up his eyes.
He turned to look at his friend, whose eyes palpitated with a deep sombreness.
“I don’t suppose you’ll let me go back on my word at this point, will you?”
Dave didn’t reply, only smiled.
“No, I wouldn’t think you would. Well, go on then, let’s get it over with.”
He gripped the top of his walking stick to push himself up, but before he could stand Dave had put a hand over his.
“Give us a few minutes, aye? It won’t go anywhere without us, don’t worry.”
“Look at you. So keen you were about visiting Hedge this morning. Doesn’t sound that good at dusk, does it?”
“It’s not that, it’s just… I wanted to sit here for another while, that’s all. Good memories.”
Neil looked up at the Crags, now just a jet black outline against the grey sky looming above.
“It’s a good memory for sure, Dave, but you weren’t even there. I don’t see–”
“No, you twit, not that. Down there, on the grass, next to that mound. Don’t you remember? That’s where the three of us met. I provided the ball and yous two provided the jumpers for the goalposts. We rarely missed an afternoon here, kicking the ball around, dreaming about becoming professional players and playing for the national team. Rain or shine, we would come out and play, and rain or shine you would always end up with a splatter of mud across your face.”
“Aye, I do remember,” sniffled Neil. His eyes shone in the gloom with a liquid brilliance. A boyish grin was on his face – not the one from their university years, but the one from their football years. All that was missing from it was that splatter of mud.
They both looked out at their old football pitch in the stillness of the languishing evening. Eventually, without a word or a gesture, they got up in unison and headed in silence to the last stop.
The tail end of the day brought with it a rush of wind that sped through the graveyard’s dirt paths and made the tree leaves shiver, producing a never-ending rustle that drowned out the echoes of the city outside. Footfalls crunched and snapped as they left their imprint on the soil below. The only light within the confines of the cemetery came from the street lamps outside, their orange glow spattered about, crawling between the headstones and making furtive dashes across the paths, never lingering for too long.
“How you find your way around here with so little light, I can’t tell, Dave. If you’d asked me, I would’ve sworn Hedge was somewhere on the other side of the graveyard.”
Dave didn’t reply, but hesitated a few metres into the last path they had entered, before taking a few uneven steps into the section of graves to their right, stopping before one of the headstones.
“Is that it? I remembered it taller, if I’m honest. And thinner. Bit less decoration, maybe. But what do I know? I haven’t been here since the funeral. Big branch is casting a shadow over it anyway, can’t even read his name on it. You could’ve taken me to any tomb and I wouldn’t have been able to tell you if it was the right one, really. I’d–”
Somewhere behind and above them, a bird interrupted him with a piercing caw before flying off into the night. The branch it had been perched on, no longer weighed down, swung back up to its natural position, no longer obscuring the headstone.”
“Oh. I see.”
NEIL R. INNES
1937 – 2018
Your family and friends
will never forget you
Dave wended his way out the cemetery twenty minutes later and took a cab back home.