To Edinburgh, to visit my friend Margo and do some work for her. It is always a pleasure to see her and I haven’t been to Edinburgh for years, plus she’s paying for half my ticket, so it would really be silly not to go. What feels like weeks of illness has left me feeling somewhat cooped up; England has lost its mind in a way Scotland hasn’t; also, conference is on in Brighton, and the spectacle of Labour Party members tearing each other to shreds on my doorstep always leaves me feeling a little queasy.
At the end of Margo’s street in Morningside there is a pub called the Canny Man’s [sic]. I pop in there on the way back from doing some shopping. The sign outside shows a uniformed policeman kneeling down and firing a rifle; this suggests some kind of sectarian position about which I suspect it would be unwise to enquire. But inside the pub – oh, it is heaven. A deep crimson warren of dark-panelled snugs, every available inch of space occupied by some ancient knick-knack or other – a tuba here, a moose head there – this is what the inside of a pub should look like.
Budgetary constraints – yes, after last week’s good news my financial position is more or less back to the status quo ante – mean that I can’t stay there for more than one pint. To take my leave of the place almost breaks my heart. “What an incredibly beautiful pub,” I say to the barman. “Thanks,” he says. “I made it myself.”
On the Sunday night we decide to go out. It is about 9.30pm and, bizarrely, inexplicably, cruelly, the Canny Man’s is shut. I feel bereft; I have been shown a glimpse of paradise, and now it is to be denied to me. But Margo knows another pub down the road, Bennets, which I have been recommended by friends who know the area (I discover that almost everyone I know has been to the Canny Man’s. Once again, I am the last person at the party).
Margo is, I should explain, one of those people to whom things… happen. There is a type of person who is not made for a quiet life, and she’s one of them. It’s a kind I seem to attract. They’re all women, for some reason. And for some reason, it is important to bear in mind that she has a strong Russian accent. The last time we met, the evening ended with the dawn, and a breakage whose details I don’t think I will share with you.
We sit down outside so we can smoke. The atmosphere inside is, I have to admit, rather subdued. The place is almost empty; I wonder if Morningside has a history of grimly joyless Presbyterianism. But then behind me I hear a vague noise, as of a drunken man making a tit of himself about 50 yards away. Margo looks up, amused, and out of the corner of my eye I see someone cavorting around a lamppost.
“Oh look,” says Margo. “He’s doing a pole dance.”
Please don’t wave at him, I think to myself. Don’t wave. Surely I don’t need to say this aloud? Margo waves to him. Clearly, she feels that the evening is underpopulated, and she feels in the mood to make new acquaintances. I, however, am in no such mood, and even before turning around I can tell that the person who is about to join us is a wrong ’un.
He is extravagantly drunk; I’d say in his early thirties, always a dangerous age for someone to be inebriated. Young enough to be stupid, but also young enough to be full of energy. He waves a half-empty litre bottle of beer at us and then tries to climb over the railings. He is at that stage of the evening where doors are boring. The pub staff become aware of him.
At which point I become aware of the man’s accent. It, just like my friend’s, is Russian. Oh God, I think to myself, he is going to hear her voice and do some Slavic bonding ritual which will mean that they will never be parted. This is so much what I do not want to happen. So I start doing a kind of diplomatic dance: suggesting the drunkard disappears into the night, pacifying the increasingly annoyed barmaid, and not making my belief that Margo has acted with extreme unwisdom too obvious. I like to think that I am good at defusing situations like this, and gradually things seem to be calming down.
And then the drunken Russian sticks his arm out in the well-recognised position, and says: “Heil Hitler.” He apparently thinks this is an acceptable conversational gambit, so he says it again.
When I heard it the first time, I suddenly became very unhappy. Hearing it a second time doesn’t improve my mood. If anything, it makes it worse. It is not often that I contemplate violence, but I imagine what it would be like to spread this cretin’s nose all over his stupid face. But oh, then there would be police, and paperwork, and possibly a corpse, and flashing blue lights disturbing the peace of a Sunday night.
Well, eventually, everything is settled, and when we get back to the flat I make Margot write out “I will not wave to drunken Russian fascists in Morningside” one hundred times. So that’s settled, then.
This article appears in the 06 Oct 2021 issue of the New Statesman, Unsafe Places