The sky above Edinburgh was a glorious shade of forget-me-not blue as Anna pulled the front door behind her, lifting her face to welcome the early morning sunshine. The Scottish weather was treating them to a break in the relentless rain that had been a feature for most of July. Summer in Scotland always felt something of a misnomer to Anna, when days that featured genuine warmth were few and far between. It didn’t ever deter the tourists, however, especially when the festivals rolled around. They came in their droves ready to devour culture and comedy in equal measure. Making her way up Broughton Street towards the city centre Anna readied herself for the start of another busy festival season. She had a love/hate relationship with this time of year. At the beginning it always felt exciting, Edinburgh welcoming the world with open arms, so much to see and do, then by the end she was jaded by the sheer number of people, always blocking her path as she tried to make her way home, spilling out of every pub and restaurant onto the pavements and roadways in every corner of the city. She felt a sense of quiet relief when they all returned home and the locals had the place to themselves once more.
This was her city and she loved it and knew it by heart. Perhaps growing up in a place so littered with history, as well as the influence of her dear Mum, was what had given Anna her love of the subject. History spoke to Anna. It helped that she had a vivid imagination, seeing stories where others saw only cold facts and figures. She heard the whisper of former residents around every corner, calling her to draw near and listen to their tales. Poring over old photographs and maps she would try to imagine what this place that she knew so well looked like eighty years ago or two hundred years ago. She particularly loved to imagine the past through the everyday lives of the people who lived it, what they wore and ate, where they lived or how they travelled. Her job in the National Museum was the perfect vehicle for her passion, and a place where she could put her degree to good use. She had sensed her father’s disappointment in a job which he believed was no more than a glorified tour guide, but Anna swallowed his scorn because she believed that history explained everything about us and as such was an indispensable part of life.
Crossing the road and walking by the Conan Doyle pub, named for the author who was born across the road on Picardy Place, she passed the steps of St.Mary’s Cathedral and glanced above the roofs of the modern buildings to catch a glimpse of Nelson’s Monument on top of Calton Hill. She was glad that Edinburgh had this spectacular tower to commemorate the battle of Trafalgar rather than a column with a statue on top. For one thing it provided spectacular views across the city and was considerably less popular and as a result less crowded than the Scott Monument on Prince’s Street, and the design itself always made Anna smile. It was based on an upturned telescope, the piece of equipment most closely associated with Lord Nelson. Once you knew that you could never un-see the telescope when you glanced up at the iconic buildings rising from the east end of the city.
This was how Anna navigated the familiar streets of the capital, seeing more of the past than the present. She never got tired of Edinburgh’s spectacular skyline. One of her favourite vantage points was crossing North Bridge, and this morning she allowed herself a moment to pause and take in the full panorama. To her left the famous backdrop of Arthur’s seat and Salisbury Craggs, rugged and dramatic against the blue sky. The Scotsman building stood in front of her at the end of the bridge and her eyes continued to scan to the right all the way along to the castle. As she continued to turn and look back towards Prince’s Street the Scott Monument rose like some ancient rocket reaching for the clouds while the Balmoral Hotel stood on the corner, the sun lighting its many cornices and sculptings. Not for the first time she reminded herself how lucky she was to live in such a place. There were people who had lived here all their lives who took the city for granted, going through each day as though they lived in any old unremarkable town, never seeing what was right under their noses. Anna didn’t understand them. Passing the Tron Kirk on the corner of the Royal Mile her hand ran slowly along the cold, rough stone walls as she wondered how many people had loitered there in times gone by. Who had gone in through the doorway to be married, baptised or buried? She looked with the eyes of her imagination to see what characters could be conjured up, trying to get a glimpse of the sights of the past, when the door crashed open and a young man wrestled a chalkboard down the steps to the pavement, advertising the indoor craft market now housed within. The present made itself rudely known but Anna knew there would be silent secrets still inside, waiting to be discovered. History was always revealing itself.
In sharp contrast to all that was ancient, every square inch of railing or lamp post was plastered in posters for the Fringe which had kicked off the night before. They had been going up gradually for weeks and now there were so many that the entire town had turned into one huge advert for comedy shows, ballet performances and literary walking tours. The most eager tourists were already milling along the High Street in search of breakfast and craft stall holders were just beginning to lay out their wares. Although it was relatively quiet now Anna knew that by the time she made her way home later in the day she’d have to run the gauntlet of slow moving wide-eyed visitors, street performers and the obligatory bagpiper trying to earn a few pounds from appreciative standers by. There would be a multitude of languages being spoken, as people chattered excitedly with their friends and family, and every few feet someone would offer her a flier advertising their show, trying to persuade her to come to along. At this time of year you couldn’t walk from one end of the High Street to the other without gathering a small sheaf of notices promising you the night of your life. She smiled remembering a time when a university friend had an aunt come to visit for the day around the time of the festival. They had walked together through the crowded streets showing her the sights and were passed by two young men in quite elaborate attire.
“Are those gentlemen making some kind of fashion statement?” she had wondered aloud.
“No it’s just the festival Auntie June, you’ll see all sorts at this time of year.”
And right on cue and entire troop of people in neon pink tutus had skipped past, followed at the rear by someone dressed as a bear. Standard festival stuff.
Just past St. Giles cathedral she turned the corner onto George IV Bridge and almost collided with a group of French students being led by their teacher. Anna pinned herself against the wall unable to find a way past as they kept coming and coming.
“Come on, come on,” she thought as she kept trying to squeeze her way through the crowd. The museum was only round the corner but she didn’t want to be late. Anna was nearly always late for everything. It was her most infuriating habit and one she had been trying her best to break ever since starting work. So far so good but she was still settling in and this opportunity meant too much to her. As she approached the round tower on the corner of the building she paused before crossing the road and glanced upwards, noticing with fresh significance the cross shape cut into the stonework. My church, she thought, as she made her way along the side of the building to the staff entrance. It had always been one of Anna’s favourite places to visit and now she got to work here. So much of her made sense when she stepped into this building. One of her new favourite moments of each day was to stand in the middle of the grand gallery before they opened the doors to the public and take it all in. The long oval room with white columns drawing your eye up to the glass ceiling had a cathedral-like feel to it. Even on the gloomiest of winter days this space had a quality of light that was hard to find anywhere else in the city.
There would be no time for wonder today, however, as she was cutting it fine. She had just enough time to put her belongings in her locker and head to her first station of the day. This morning she would be in the Early People section and then after lunch she would be at her favourite exhibit, Fashion and Style. For as long as she could remember Anna had been enamoured with costume and historical dress. She watched period dramas as much for the wardrobe department as anything else, and had done her dissertation on the role of clothes in social transformation in the early twentieth century. Any chance that she got to loiter near glass cases of exquisite frocks and handwoven garments was a great day in her book. And now every day she could walk past them, even if it was just on her way out of the building.
“Doors opening!” came the cry from the entrance hall. Anna straightened her name badge and readied herself for the day.
“Sorry I’m late,” Anna apologised as she hugged her friend and sat down at the table. “Today has been crazy. The place seemed to be full of large groups of foreign students all with the most enormous backpacks. Then I was trying to finish up an explanation to some German visitors about the use of snuff boxes while shepherding them towards the exit and they kept asking questions and…”
“…and of course your answers would have been short and succinct because you hate talking about that subject,” Julia winked playfully across the table.
“Well…” Anna began to gather her defence but then looked at her oldest, dearest friend and realised there was no point. “Yes ok, maybe they were the ones trying to get away.” Anna laughed at herself. “You know that once I start I get carried away. And it’s not very often that people actually ask a question, so I just took the opportunity and ran with it. Anyway, cheers!” Anna, lifted the glass of wine that had been ordered for her and smiled at the girl across the table.
“So that was work, but how is it at home?” Julia asked.
Anna paused, unsure of how to answer. She had moved back into the family home after graduating to try and save up some money. Both her brothers had long since moved away and so now it was just her and her Dad. Struan Ferguson had made his name by being one of the country’s leading lawyers and been anything but impressed by his daughter’s desire to study history at university, despite the fact that her mother had been a history teacher. What on earth would she do with a degree like that, he had asked? She could do better, he had declared with a tone of disappointment. She loved her Dad very much but at times wondered how they were part of the same gene pool. His son James had followed him into the field of law while Anna’s other brother Robert was in the cut and thrust of the city of London, trading, making deals and talking about sums of money that made her head spin.
“No point living in the past,” her father was fond of saying, “progress isn’t made by looking backwards.”
They had gone back and forth on many an evening, each fiercely and stubbornly defending their position. Eventually her father had relented.
“You’re a different kind of girl Anna,” he’d whispered, finally defeated, “a kind, old soul, like your mother before you.” He put an arm somewhat awkwardly around her shoulder and kissed the top of her head. “You’re her daughter for sure.” It was one of the few precious times they had spoken of her.
Anna’s Mum, Sarah, had died from cancer when Anna was nine years old. Although her memories of her were sometimes distant, Anna knew that she and her mother had been kindred spirits. She did not share that same connection with the rest of her family. When her twin brothers were home for a visit she felt like something of a stranger in her own home. It wasn’t just that they were so much older than her and so hadn’t really felt like siblings at all, it was that she was simply driven by different motivations and often felt as though they looked at her like a child who didn’t understand the real world. Anna cared about people more than money and this seemed to set her apart from the male Fergusons. She often wondered how things might have been different if her mother had lived. What she remembered most clearly was her Mum’s kindness and warmth, and their adventures through the city. She had given her that love of history for sure. It was Sarah who told her the grizzly tales of Burke and Hare, took her to see Mary King’s close and paraded with her down the Royal Mile, both of them pretending to be royalty waving at the crowds going by. Anna had vague memories of her father being with them on occasion and smiling and laughing along as they played make believe around the streets of the old town. Since her death that part of him had disappeared and he had thrown himself further into work. Finding an emotional connection with him these days seemed impossible. It made being his daughter very difficult at times. Anna knew that she was very like her mother – people were always telling her so. Well, other people. Definitely not her father. She could sometimes see the recognition behind his eyes when he looked at her, and could tell it was a moment when she particularly reminded him of his late wife. Then he would busy himself with something else, trying to block the memory and the pain.
“Its fine,” said Anna with a resigned shrug. “We don’t see a lot of each other really. He asks how the job’s going and I tell him. He nods and smiles. He tries to tell me something about his work but I don’t really understand, so I nod and smile back. It’s like we’ve lost each other somehow and even though we’re standing face to face we don’t know how to find our way back.”
“Oh Anna I’m sorry.”
Julia reached across the table and squeezed the hand of her oldest friend. In truth they were more like sisters than friends. Julia was smart and beautiful, with her own unique and quirky sense of style and Anna loved everything about her. Julia’s parents had become a surrogate family for her at the time when her Dad seemed unable to fathom how to bring up a daughter on his own. In the years when he was floundering they provided a safe place for her to feel at home. Julia’s Mum, Fran, had helped both the girls to navigate the trials of adolescence, providing wise counsel, a shoulder to cry on and cheering them on through late night study sessions with endless slices of cake. Eventually Struan came out the other side of his grief and he and Anna found a way forward together. She knew that in his own way he loved her but right now the distance between them felt cold and uncomfortable.
“It’s ok. I’m sure we’ll figure it out eventually. Anyway, what are we going to see? Any suggestions?”
“Dinner then comedy followed by a stroll through the streets to find some handsome tourists,” Julia suggested with a twinkle in her eye.
“Done,” agreed Anna, lifting her jacket and following her friend out into the early evening sun.