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THE DIVIDE

BY ADAM SHARDLOW


AS THE NIGHT BUS moves through the haar, a gently rolling sea mist unique to the east coast of Scotland, I look out the window from the top deck. Tendrils of fog slide over the route N37 coach as it powers across the bridge. The same bridge that links the city of Edinburgh north to south. We are high above a deep ravine, the river and homes below concealed by the weather. The entire city, at least for a brief moment, is permitted to play hide and seek. Apartments with large windows illuminated, residents’ warm and dry inside disappear, replaced by rolling white clouds lit by the bus’s headlights. A vast ocean of vapour fills the sky, and the city and the river have all been swept up and deposited inside an immense thick weather duvet.


Droplets of water are propelled back across the dirt-smeared windows, forming rivulets and channels. I chase one with my finger, outlined by the silent grey beyond. It feels as if there is nothing above or below us anymore. We are alone, floating through the dark clouds. We have entered a dead space where time has stopped. I look around and realise I am the only passenger. I don’t remember the bus stopping or passengers getting off. Perhaps I am more tired than I realise, but for now, it is just me and the driver stuck in a liminal space.


Two street lamps glow dull orange, the light unwilling to penetrate the cold fog as if afraid of what might lurk inside. What brightness is produced is reflected back at me, resembling wildfire seen through a haze of smoke. In Scotland, there are folktales of what visits the city when it is hidden in the haar—stories of strange things encountered, alone and lost in a grey nowhere.


The bus slows as it crosses the bridge, gears dropping, the engine whining in protest. Perhaps the driver is not wholly convinced the roadway remains intact. Believing it has collapsed or vanished entirely, leaving just the clouds. More likely, he is preparing for the bend that comes once the south side is reached, the road arcing up towards the New Town, the bus heading on to Princes Street and the travellers who no doubt huddle in the looming shadow of the castle.


I don’t expect to see anything from my seat, but looking down, I glimpse a man. He is just a shape in the haze but seems to be staring out over the vast undulating fog. His hands are braced against the parapet, and his legs are bent slightly as if using the bridge to support his weight. The figure—dark jacket, darker hat—is a silhouette caught in time.


It takes me a few seconds to compute what I saw. What was wrong with the picture? It was not a man moving across the bridge at speed, a person desperate to get out of the dreadful weather, nor was it someone who was enjoying the view as the clouds hid the city. As I consider what I saw, I feel the hairs on my arms rise and an ache spread down my neck and across my shoulders. Sensations that I recognise as the city shifting and making itself known.


I get up and descend the steps at the front of the bus, pressing the bell and requesting it to stop. The vehicle stutters to a halt, sending a splatter of dirty water onto the pavement. The doors open, sticking and squealing in protest and letting the wet air rush inside. The haar rolls into the space, looking for new territory to occupy—an invading spectral force.


I thank the driver, who ignores me, and step out into the mist. The doors close with a sudden jolt, expelling the fog that had crept inside. The bus pulls off with a shudder and a sigh. Above, the skeletal arms of Silver Birch trees, ebony against ivory, drip water onto the pavement. The noise is unexpected and stands out against the silence that enshrouds the city. It’s as if Edinburgh has flicked on the mute button.


Flicking my collar up and pulling down my cloth cap, I turn and descend the hill. I walk fast. The sound of my feet on the wet pavement muffled. I might be too late already, but as I turn the bend and step onto the Dean Bridge, I can see the smudge of a shadow through the murk, and I know he is still there.


This is a game we play: me and the memories of the city. Edinburgh is waiting for me to decide upon my next course of action. Do I interfere, or do I turn away? Let it win for once. It has played white and made the first move. Now, I must counter.


At first, I was unsure if the man was real or a memory. A manifestation of the city’s unconscious past invading the present, a warning of what is to come, but the shape is too well defined. Also, standing downwind as I am, there is a suggestion of the modern about him. A contemporary aroma that I recognise as weed, the sweet vanilla of personal use.


He does not turn as I approach. His mind is elsewhere. The ghosts are already talking to him in a whisper. I join him at the parapet. His hands still grip the stonework. They are placed between the metal decorations created to stop this sort of thing. Not that inflicting pain on hands or knees would override a person’s determination on this course of action.


“Did you know the bridge is hollow?”


He doesn’t reply. I wasn’t expecting him to, but he knows I am here, and I’m not just a bad reaction to his last joint. Whether or not I am a voice of reason or a dark angel urging him on remains to be decided. I continue.


“A bridge of this size is heavy. So, to make it lighter, they made the four arches holding it up empty. That way, the weight and the cost of building it were reduced. You can still crawl inside today, which is useful for inspections, I imagine. Quite ingenious when you think about it.”


I check him out as I talk. My voice is soft and reassuring, showing little concern for his predicament. That’s how I was taught to handle these situations all those years ago, during a previous life. You offer a calm exterior, even while calculating the odds of what the person will do next. However, that was a long time ago, and I hope I am not too rusty.


He’s younger than I initially thought. The wear and tear of modern life have aged him prematurely. There are fine creases at the edge of his eyes, the same at the corner of his mouth. His bottom lip is peeling. He’s been worrying it with his teeth. He last shaved several days ago. The stubble on his chin matches the shaved hair that disappears under the grey beanie he wears pulled down over his ears. He is thin and a little emaciated under all his bulky clothes. An addict’s diet is not high in nutrition.


If it came to it, I could wrestle him to the ground and sit on him. I have been piling on the pounds in the last few years. Despite all the Edinburgh hills, staying trim gets harder in middle age. Still, that remains a last resort for now. He’ll only come back tomorrow. The voice of the city is persistent, and it demands sacrifice. It is best I persuade him by showing him how to ignore it.


“This bridge is famous. Did you know that?”


He doesn’t respond. He’s not ready yet, so I continue. A lone man giving out useless information in the hope of acknowledgement. Like the bar room bore that everyone wants to drown out but can’t. Eventually, you engage with them and get dragged down some pedantic line of conversation.


“Have you heard of Thomas Telford?”


Again nothing. No matter.


“Quite a famous engineer in his day? We’re talking about the nineteenth century before Victoria was on the throne. Telford built all sorts of stuff around the country: aqueducts, canals, and bridges aplenty. He did much of his work here in Scotland. His birthplace. You probably studied him in school?”


Do I see a slight acknowledgement? A small movement of the mouth indicates he knows what I’m prattling on about.


“Originally, the only way to get across this valley was to use the old stone bridge across Bell's Brae, down there.”


I point down into the swirling mist. There’s nothing to see, of course. Just the gently undulating cloud that hides just how high up we are. He looks down anyway and, perhaps for the first time, realises that below him is nothing. A soft blanket of mist that hides an absence that he would join were he to pass through it. Below that is a much darker place—one from which there is no chance of return. It’s this that whispers to him. I can hear them now. Mutterings from the past. Memories filtering through the fog from times past.


“The old bridge took time and effort to reach, plus you had to pull your cart back up the steep hill into town, which I imagine was a bitch.”


I let him consider the effort of that. If he is a local, which is likely, he’ll have been to Dean Village, and he’ll appreciate the steep road that leads down and back up, the ache in the back of your calf, the twinge of a knee whilst walking up the steep cobbled streets.


A car passes with its headlights on, lighting up the haar so that, for a moment, I can see him clearly. There are tears at the corners of his eyes. They reflect the white of the fog back at me so that they look like tiny pearls.


“This bridge is nearly four hundred and fifty feet long, built over four arches and over a hundred feet above the river.”


He looks down again. A gust of wind disturbs the fog, and briefly, you can hear the waters gurgling and splashing between the rocks and gullies below us.


“It’s high?” He speaks with a local accent. “Good, that’s what I need.” His voice has a slight waver, as if he has not spoken in a long time. His throat sounds dry, the words catching. But he’s talking, which is the main thing. It moves us in the right direction.


“One hundred feet is probably enough to kill you, but it’s not guaranteed. The human body is surprisingly resilient. You will die, but it might take some time.”


“That’s better than living.”


He sounds bitter. Angry at himself and others. I wonder what has brought him to this place, but I don’t want to ask directly. What made him think being dead was preferable to being alive will only reinforce his ideas, which is what the city wants. I need him to see that he is not alone and that the voices he can hear are those of Edinburgh remembering. This place wants him to repeat what so many have done before. To pay the blood toll. To add to the bad memories that reside deep in the stones below us.


“Telford made a mistake, however. Want to know what it was?”


He shrugs, but he seems interested. He turns away from the parapet, allowing me to see his face entirely. Catching my eye, his stare is not confrontational, and he is distracted from the space below us.


“He built the walls of the bridge too low. As soon as it was completed, the bridge attracted people like you. Those that had given up. Those who thought living was too hard and dying was easy. It isn’t, by the way.”


“What would you know?”


“I’ve seen it many times. Up close and personal, you could say.”


It’s his turn to look me over. He takes in the thick jacket with oversized lapels and the old-style cap pulled down low to hide the nasty scar.


“You some sort of religious person? I’m not interested in that. You live once, and then you die—end of.”


“True. You only die once. But if you’re lucky, you get to live every day.”


It’s a corny line. One I’ve heard before. I can’t remember who said it, but it seems apt.


He shakes his head as if trying to dislodge other voices. The ones that don’t speak reason. As he does it, I realise that I can see them now. I knew the city would not disappoint. They had been there from the moment I felt the hairs on the backs of my arm rise, the familiar shiver between my shoulder blades.


This city is old. It’s seen a lot. It’s lived even more. Everywhere you go in Edinburgh, you are walking over everything that has come before, some good, much of it bad, and the city likes to remember. Memories soak into the spaces below us, the empty chambers and earth caves. The town is a honeycomb space riven with openings where history resides, ready to return and replay. Some of the living are attuned to these manifestations, feeling the memories clawing at their consciousness. For some reason, this Remembering City has marked me as one who can hear it. I don’t know why I was chosen; perhaps it has to do with how I got that scar, but I’ve made a career out of listening. On the bridge, above the space filled with the voices of those who have come here before, those who have given up their lives and let their blood soak into the barrows below, we find ourselves in the space between.


I can see them. The memories. They crowd the walls of the bridge. Looking down at where everything ends. I know he can hear them chattering, goading him. They are shadows in the fog, and they grow more substantial as I talk. The city wants him to see.


“Look around you. Do you want to join them?”


Over my shoulder, he watches something move in the haar. His eyes glance away and narrow as if trying to make out a memory that isn’t there. Frowning, he turns back, puzzled and perhaps scared.


“A sailor, spurned by his lover, was among the first to step from the ledge. He’s over there, the one in the hat. Next to the school girl, pregnant by the rich man from the New Town and the old woman, made destitute through no fault of her own. They’re all here. The young man who murdered his father and knew the police were closing in. The servant abused. The debtor and the alcoholic. New and old, memories of people from all walks of life.”


With his back to the edge of the bridge, they become more than mere memory. The fog is still thick, but the shades use the fog to become more distinct. Wrapping the weather around them like a shroud. I don’t know how the city’s memory works, but those events full of emotion sink into the stones and haunt us. Perhaps the others are worn away through lack of recall, whilst those that stay repeat like a stuck record. The replaying deteriorates and changes over time, becoming a parody of the original so that all that is left is the most basic retellings.


“They’re waiting for you if you want to join them?”


He’s scared now. He looks from one shape to another as they turn towards him. Faces destroyed by long drops, partially hidden but not enough to dispel the horror.


“Don’t expect any kind of kinship with them. If you choose to join, they’ll consume you. You’ll become a memory at best. Part of the Remembering City. You won’t exist anymore.”


He steps off the curb, moving towards them. His hands stretched out before him as if entering a somnambulistic state. The shadows take their own final step out into the empty space. Rotating slowly in the swirling smoke, we watch as each shade takes its turn to disappear over the side. No screams or yells accompany their fall. In many ways, the lack of sound is even worse than a scream.


As the last memory fades into the great divide, I pull him back from the road and onto the safety of the pavement. Sound returns with a rush as a night bus roars past. The metal beast whines and coughs as it slows for the bend. Reality has reasserted itself. I hold him by the front of his coat, pulling him close. The bus passes inches from the back of his head. He can feel the wet splatter from the windows. A wrecking machine that would have returned him broken and bloodied if I had not interceded.


Already, I can see that his time with the Remembering City has passed. What he has seen, what he has experienced is gone. The voices of the city have stopped their whispering, and now death is something that only happens to other people.


He pulls back and straightens his coat, looking at me as if I’ve just arrived and caught him in a compromising position. I’m an imposter, intruding into his personal space. There is a flicker of an apology. Maybe a thank you before he turns and moves into the fog. A disturbance in the weather, nothing more.


I turn back and look over the side, the view still hidden. Telford retired not long after finishing Dean Bridge, concerned that he was getting too old and age was dulling his faculties. It took the city leaders another eighty years to correct his mistake and build the parapets higher to dissuade people from suicide. It didn’t. They are all here, and still, they come. Their memories remain, if nothing else. Shadows that flicker and fade, voices that lure those that will listen to the edge and the void that exists just below. Another memory from the subterranean spaces, ready for the next person prepared to listen to the Remembering City.


© The Divide, 2023, Adam Shardlow

 

Adam Shardlow is an author based in Edinburgh. His work has been printed worldwide, including articles for The Guardian newspaper, The Idler and Aesthetica, and he used to be a writer for the popular BBC comedy quiz Call My Bluff. His novels include Juvie, STIGMA and The Lady Thrillington Adventures (as Havelock James). His current work is a series of supernatural thrillers set in Scotland’s capital featuring the mysterious Harry Eames.

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