Despite the terrorist toxic gas story not everyone had left Dodge as I discovered walking down Lothian Road. It was a lonely trek under a steely sky, head bent against the rain squall driving into my face and chased by a nipping wind fresh from the icy waters of the North Sea.
I needed to clear my head and now my sanctuary had been invaded, the best place to do that was to take mind and body both for a walk and see where it took me. I turned left at Shandwick Place into the city’s West End, normally a thrumming hub, but now a water sodden, wind blown waste land.
The darkened windows of the Art Deco building that had housed Fraser’s Department Store stared onto the street like the empty eye sockets of a long dead giant. A particularly vicious tug of the wind almost cost me my hat and by the time I had things under control the welcome orange glow of lights bursting out of the crepuscular gloom from a Starbucks at the corner of Palmerston Place had me in their tractor beam. Hurrying towards it I found to my utter amazement that it was indeed open for business.
Maybe I shouldn’t have been surprised, maybe no matter what happens, nuclear war, bubonic plague, return of the living dead, there will always be a Starbucks, staffed and ready to serve. It was housed in an imposing building, a bank in a former life with high vaulted ceilings, now reduced to eking a living trying to pretend it was someone’s living room where strangers came to drink coffee. Two rooms were connected by stairs with a long counter near the door, behind which a skinny young man with lank blond hair did the necessary.
I sat in the furthest away room and sipped my drink, glaring unseeingly at the chocolate cake I’d also bought. There was even a smattering of customers determined to pretend that it was just another day in the land of the living. All of them young, bright eyed and feverish, creating the kind of vibe that I had always imagined would have been around during the war but had never thought I’d get to experience first hand.
I took the creased paper out of my wallet and dialled the number it contained on my mobile. No answer and there was no way in hell I was leaving a message, because the only thing I could think of was a long, profane and detailed list of what she could do to herself and with what.
I wondered how many people had stayed in Edinburgh and why. The lunatic stay-at-homes in the room I was in consisted of a huddle of young women at the table next to mine. They were pouring what looked suspiciously like whisky into their coffee cups and giggling with the manic intensity of people who clearly believed, like REM, that it really was the end of the world as we knew it. Except feeling fine wasn’t even on the menu.
Sad, messed up, crazy, maybe, but fine was for lunatics and suicides.
The rain was a blurry sheet outside, life beyond the confines of the window reduced to a smear of grey and sepia. A dark shape slid by blotting out what meagre light the day was willing to offer. The dead were becoming more substantial by the day and this darkness was a pack of them out on the hunt.
I felt the heft of their attention as surely as if it had been a rope tightened around my neck. The barbed hooks of their desires and wants trailed gently over my thoughts searching for a hold, an anchor, a breach in my defences to latch onto. I kept my mind a careful blank because my wants weren’t so different from theirs and I needed the additional temptation like a hole in the head.
The darkness slid by a second time like a crocodile circling an injured baby antelope that had fallen into the river. The girls fell silent, whisky consumption halted as they scented danger. What had these particular antelopes seen in last few days?
I was about to find out what the lives of ordinary folk had come down to on the first Boxing Day after the dead had risen in Auld Reekie.