Tuesday, 7 September 2010

In the warm room.

Oh! Ah wisnae expectin ye th'day! Ye've caught me ridd-haundit haein a wee fly puff, gie me a meenit tae feenish it will ye? Ah ken, ah ken, ah shouldnae really smoke, no wi ma chest, but we aw need oor wee indulgences dae we no? an the menthol fair clears ma passages...

There, ah've pit it oot. Noo dinnae get oantae me, ah've been guid lately, ah've cut doon quite a bit, an ah dinnae smoke in ma bed ony mair. Weel ah'm nae wantin tae be burnt in ma sleep am ah? Even tho ah've got ma smoke detector an ma fire extinguisher, ye can nivver be too carefu can ye? No like the auld days. Naw, no like then, when we were aw at risk o gaun up in a puff o smoke at ony meenit. Ye mynd ah telt ye aboot wee Andra Gray settin fire tae the Provost's hoose an how he could've burnt the toun doon? Weel, let me tell ye how close we cam tae that back in 1824...

It wis a great day fer Embra, the day that Geordie Drummond laid the foonds fer the North Brig back in 1763, fer it opened up the fields tae the north fer the auld toun tae expand intae. Afore that day, abody in Embra wis crammed intae the tenement lands oan the High Street, an the ony way tae big wis up. Lords an ladies, merchants an wrights, labourers an servants, we were aw packed cheek by jowl intae great towerin edifices. It got sae owercrowdit that eventually it wis mair like erse-cheek by jowl! As soon as the New Toun development took aff, them that could afford it moved oot, leavin them that couldnae tae suffer in the Auld Toun. The lands got a bit dilapidatit, but nae less crowdit fer it.

Anyroads, tae get tae the pynt, ah had been oot drinkin this nicht wi ma pal Jessie Knox, ye mynd her? We had stairtit aff doon in John Dowie's alehoose in Libberton's Wynd, but it wis a bit deid in there that nicht sae we went oan a crawl, endin up doon in the Gressmairket, an by the end o the nicht ah wis fleein ah hae tae admit it. We were in the Last Drop, an ah wis richt in the mood fer a laugh an a cairry-oan, but Jessie wis haein nane o it. Her face had been trippin her aw nicht, as per usual, an ah'd jist aboot had enough. Ah telt her her girnin wis gettin oan ma wick an she'd be as weel gettin back up the road tae her mammy, an so she did, she upped an left, leavin me sittin oan ma tod...

Ah wisnae oan ma ain fer lang tho, an this fit young lad came an sat aside me. Turns oot his name wis Lachie, he wis a richt teuchter fae up north, an he worked in Kirkwood's the engravers up at the Auld Assembly Close. When he offert tae walk me hame ah jumped at the chance, bein left in the lurch as ah wis. We climbed up the West Bow an he telt me aw aboot his wee hame up in the Heelans, how he missed his hills an his lochs an his sheep. 'How can ye miss a sheep?' thocht ah tae masel, but ah nivver let oan, ah wis enjoyin his funny accent that much. We were saunterin doon the High Street past his work, when he asked me if ah wid like tae come up tae the workshop fer a cup o tea an tae see his etchins? Weel, it wis a cauld nicht, this bein November, an ah could've done wi warmin up, plus ah'd aye wantit tae ken whit an etchin wis, sae ah goes "Aye, ah'll come up, but ah'll hae nane o yer funny business mynd". "Oh no Sophia, ah'll behave masel" says he.

Ah wis michty disappointit ah can tell ye, when he brung oot aw these wee drawins o hills an lochs. "Here's sic-an-sic a mountain" an "That's sic-an-sic a loch" he went oan. Tae ma mynd they aw luikt alike. Ah nodded an smiled an tried no tae yawn. Efter whit seemed like an age ah'd seen enough, an ah wis chitterin wi the cauld. "Whaur's that cup o tea ye promised me then?" says me. "Come awa through tae the warm room wi the stove an ah'll pit the kettle oan" says Lachie, an he taks me through tae this dark smelly workshop.

There's tins o paint an bottles o spirits an bits o metal an sheets o widd aw ower the shop. Lachie lichts up the big black stove, pushes a big pot sittin there tae the back an sticks this battered auld kettle oan. Then he stretches up like he's reachin fer a cup aff the shelf abune me, pressin hissel up agin me, an tries tae plank a kiss oan me!

Aw here we go again! Ah dinnae ken whit it is aboot me, ah aye seem tae attract men like this, ah must hae 'mug' or 'floozie' written aw ower ma face. "Er, Lachie, gaunnae show me some mair o yer braw drawins will ye?" says ah. Onythin tae chynge the subject an get oot o his clutches. He luikt a bit disappointit at this, but took me up oan it, ah think he wis flatterit that ah thocht somethin o his art. So back through we went tae the cauld room an startit luikin at mair hills, an mair lochs, an mair hills...

Sniff... "Whit's that smell? Is that burnin?"... "Oh Jings! Crivvens!! Help ma Boab!!! Ah've left that linseed oil oan the stove!" crys Lachie, an goes runnin through. But he wis too late. The flames fae his pot o linseed are shootin up the wa an yin o the shelves is awready aflame. Lachie wis aboot tae run in tae try an pit the fire oot, but ah grabbed the scruff o his neck. There wis nae way he could dae onythin aboot it, tins an bottles were startin tae explode, an the smoke wis chokin us awready. Ah dragged the lad back an slammed the door, opened the windae an screamed "FIRE!!!"

Fire, as ah've said afore, wis a big problem in the Auld Toun, an 1824 had been an awfy bad year fer them, we'd had a fire every month that year. Indeed, it had been that bad that the Toun Cooncil had set up a municipal fire brigade, the very first onywhaur in the world, under a young builder by the name o James Braidwood. Unfortunately, it had ony been set up the month afore this an they werenae quite prepared fer a big blaze. It took the men aboot an oor tae get their machines oot, an when they did they werenae awfy organised. Aw the cooncillors, sodjers fae the Castle, an Braidwood hissel, they aw thocht they were in charge, an consequently naebody wis.

Within a few oors abody wis oot oan the street, or else they were tryin tae save their furniture an chattels fae tenements in danger. The wind got up, fannin the flames an blawin embers fae hoose tae hoose. Ah mynd at yin pynt ah wis staunin doon in the middle o the street an a saw these twa men oan the roof abune the auld Fishmarket Close wavin doon tae me an shoutin. So ah'm wavin back, as ye dae, wunnerin wha they were, an whether mibbe ah kent them fae the dancin. It wis hard tae mak them oot, whit wi aw the noise an the smoke an the dancin licht fae the fire. Turns oot, ah later discoverit, that they were shoutin doon fer a hose, tae play water oan the roof tae try an stop the fire spreadin. Ah felt that stupit.

The fire burnt aw through that nicht, the nicht o Monday the 15th, it wis terrible tae behold, burnin aw the hooses oan that stretch o the High Street, richt doon tae the Coogate. We thocht we were through the worst o it when it petered oot aroond noon. But then the cry went up again, "Fire!" an this time it wis the Tron Kirk. The Tron had a widden steeple in thon days, wi a leed coverin. It wisnae lang afore the steeple wis a roarin furnace an the leed wis runnin doon like molten lava. Some fowk thocht this wis a sign o divine retribution oan the toun, an yin auld wumman ah heard said it wis a judgement oan us fer haein a wee musical festival a few week afore this. God only knows whit she wid mak o the toun if she were alive th'day. Ah'm assumin she's deid like...

Thankfully the firemen managed tae pit that fire oot afore the entire kirk went up, but we still lost the steeple an maist o the roof. That Tuesday efternin the toun wis in shock. Hunners o fowk were millin aroon in the street, faimilies that had naewhaur tae stay, that had lost aw their possessions, their jobs, their hooses. It's funny, durin the nicht ah mynd this auld Irishman had come runnin oot yin o the entries, cryin that his hoose wis gaunnae burn an he wid lose aw he had. Me an a few ithers had gaun runnin up his stair tae see whit we could save fer him, an yet when we got tae his room, aw that wis in it wis a pile o straw an an auld chair! "Aye!" says he, "But it's still aw mine tho!"

We thocht things were bad enough, but when the cry "Fire!" went up again at ten that nicht we could bare believe it. This time the fire wis up at the Parliament Square, up whaur the highest tenements in the toun were, some o them eleeven stories high at the back, higher than ony fire hose wis gaunnae reach, an so it burned an burned, aw nicht lang. Fowk were weepin an wailin, thinkin the world wis comin tae an end, naebody had slept fer twa nichts, the licht fae the flames wis turnin the sky a fiery ridd an playin oan the Castle an the Crags. It wis like livin in sheer Hell...

That fire burnt aw through the nicht, an by the time it abated there wis hardly a buildin left untouched fae St Giles' Kirk aw the way doon tae the Tron, an aw the way doon the hill tae the Coogate. Utter devastation. We'd been blitzed.

Fower hunner faimilies had lost their hames, an a dozen fowk had lost their lives. Thankfully there were a lot o lessons tae be learnt thae nichts, an James Braidwood wis the man tae learn them. He wis a pioneer o firefechtin, an efter knockin the Embra fire brigades intae shape he went aff an did the same thing in London toun, sadly losin his life in a fire at the age o sixty. Ah wis awfy gled when they pit up a wee statue o the man in Parliament Square a year or twa syne, he's yin o Embra's treasures an nae mistake.

An as fer me? Weel ah nivver got ma cup o tea that nicht, an Lachie nivver got whitivver he wis luikin fer either, mair fuil him. If ony he'd stuck tae brewin up...

Whit ah did learn thae nichts wis that ye cannae be too carefu whaur fire's concerned. Ah went hame efter that an took the ashtray oot o ma bedroom, an it's nivver gaun back in. Ah've aye been fu o thanks fer oor firemen syne then tae, fer athoot them the Great Fire o Edinburgh wid've been an even greater calamity, respect whaur it's due...

6 comments:

  1. Superb, Sophia, you make Ian Rankin look like a rank amateur.

    Incidentally, teuchters such as me do not usually say, "Jings, crivens" and certainly not "Help ma Boaby" - unless too many drams have been taken. Lots of people claim to be teuchers hoping that winsome young, or not so young, ladies will be impressed by the expectation of Highland flings.

    Was Jessie related to the famous John Knox and his lesser-known sister Opportunity?

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  2. Ah Mr Brownlie, ye're too kind. Ah bow tae yer teuchter sensibilities an can only claim artistic licence an a dodgy memory in ma defence. Wee Lachie had been awa fae his hills an his sheep fer a while ye've got tae mynd, an mibbe he had picked up some dodgy colloquialisms oan his way sooth. An he wis pished intae the bargain, or else he widnae hae left that damned pot sittin oan the stove!

    It's a fair bet that Jessie wis aff auld John Knox's line. She wis as torn-faced as he wis, they baith luikt like they were sookin lemons aw the time. Ah'm gled tae say tho that the line had at least developed a wee sense o humour by Jessie's time. She wis a sharp tack when it cam tae bitchin aboot ither wummen at the mairkets or doon the steamie. Nae fun if she wis in yer o her 'moods' tho...

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  3. This is very clever and impressive stuff. I found it very entertaining, but I'd tone it down a bit, because no-one actually speaks like this in real life. You're in danger of making a caricature out of Scots, which the real thing doesn't deserve. I'd purge this page of its 'Oor Willie' elements. That will actually improve the quality of your text.

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  4. Thank ye maist kindly fer yer comment, Mr or Mrs A. Ah tak yer pynt, an ah'm sorry if ye think ah'm caricaturin Scots. This is nae literary thesis, this is ma blog, ma wee bit o entertainment. Ah write it, tae be honest, fer masel, an if ony ither fowk enjoy it then aw the better. Ah could tone it doon, an mibbe ah should, but then it widnae be shootinfaetheshin...

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  5. Ah thank ye kindly Wilson H. B. Sheehan (or simply Angelia)...

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