The pirate walking down the street at two in the morning on an empty Edinburgh night was called Joel. He broke into a wide grin as he saw us. I, from my corner of a doorway, looked at him, analytically. Judging his value by the cut of his clothes, his stance, the way he talked, the way he moved. Already wondering what Shreya thought of him, already wondering how I compared. How he might see me. How he might fit in to my story. A web of thoughts to keep me safe.
“You’re my couchsurfers?” he said. “Excellent!” Australian accent. Long gray coat that billowed behind him in a striking way I was sure he was aware of. Long hair and a beard that made him look like Jesus with a headband. Bright, intelligent eyes, and graceful, agile hands that danced in rhythm to his conversation.
He worked at a hostel, it turned out, and we were going to be sleeping in the staff dormitory. He led us back through the streets and I let him and Shreya take the lead. They were already deep in conversation and I was happy to fade into the background, to observe from a safe distance.
His liveliness, his animation, made me uncomfortable at first, and the thought that he might be acting like this to impress Shreya made me want to dislike him. But it was impossible to dislike Joel. He was clever, with a love of a well-turned phrase and such a genuine delight in his own puns that it was impossible not to laugh. And he didn’t let me keep my distance, didn’t let me remove myself from the conversation; by the time we passed out onto the road across Waverly Park with the castle lit up above the old city on our right, he’d drawn me into talking too.
“So what do you write?” he asked.
“Not much,” I said. “Mostly science fiction.” I thought of this as understatement, a trick I had then to protect my self image. If no one knows the extent of what it is you’re trying to do, no one can judge you for failing to achieve it.
“I like to tell myself I’m a writer,” he said, “I even have a typewriter to prove it.” And he laughed, and because it was such a true laugh, we laughed with him.
Up the hill on the other side of Waverly, back down the other side, and the city came alive, bars on the tail end of business, drunks roving the street in stumbling gaggles, a line of Irish footballers pissing against a brick wall while singing fight songs.
“This,” Joel said, with the air of a magician moonlighting as a tour guide, “is the Cowgate. A more wretched hive of drunkeness and depravity, you will never find.” He laughed again. “I love it.”
To the right, past a red-lit old church converted into a nightclub called ‘Sin’, stop just before the bridge, and Joel banged his fist on a faded door set back in the shadows from the street. “Anyone home!” He was rummaging through his pockets for a key when the door slammed open and a bearded face with lowering eyebrows glared out. Regarded us for a moment.
“Oh, hi Joel. Thought you were a drunk taking a piss on the doorstep.” He held out a hand. “Damian.”
I shook it. He had a strong handshake. The old cowboys back home would have approved. “Tim,” I said.
“Come on in.” It was warm and comfortably dingy, with a tv in the corner playing staticky soap operas and a trio of Spaniards passing a joint on the couch. Damian picked up a mug and an ashtray. “Drink? Smoke?”
I felt the tensions in me, the discomfort, ease, just a little. “Sure,” I said. “That sounds great.”
It was late, and Shreya excused herself to go to bed. Joel had to work in the morning, so he followed shortly afterwards. Damian and I sat over tea and coffee, shooting the shit to start with. Then we started to talk religion.
Damian was an atheist. And so I talked, and kept talking, the story of my leaving my university and my faith coming out with less guidance than it usually did, less hedging, less presentation. And as I did, a fist somewhere deep inside me began to unclench. When I got to the kicker, the bit about the the faith and reason paper and the expulsion that followed it, I sat back and had to roll a cigarette to keep my fingers from shaking.
He considered me for a long moment, then laughed. “That’s fucking awesome.”
I started to laugh too, tension going out of my back like it was melting, and lit my cigarette.
“How long are you here for?” he asked.
I was wrong about that. That night as I lay in bed, just before sleep, I think I knew it. Edinburgh was already starting to feel a little bit like home.