by Jane Alexander
The streets are just as they should be; which surprises me every time. I’m at the Haymarket junction: the train station in front of me, the Hearts memorial clock at my back, and to my right the main road running out of city. With a southwest wind, here’s where you’d catch it: that sweet spot equidistant from the North British Distillery and the Caledonian Brewery. But we have no wind, of course, not yet – though the skin team are working on it, because how can we call it Edinburgh without a brisk southwesterly?
With no carrying breeze, I turn my head, tilt it; feeling for the right angle. I take a couple of cautious steps, trusting Marek to steer me away from obstacles. It ought to be easier than this.
‘Still elusive,’ I say. My voice sounds blunt and distant.
There. I catch it: hold the angle, inhaling carefully. ‘Much better, now,’ I say. ‘But … still too thin. Too flat.’ It has to be alive, this smell. Yeasty and bubbling. I wrinkle my nose. ‘Top note of dust. Stale white bread.’ I’m trying to taste what’s missing. Something rich, and tangy. ‘Marek … you know the frequency we’re using for the Nor’ Loch? Can you adjust the signals in that direction – just a tiny, tiny bit?’
The tweaks will take him a couple of minutes. I could do it quicker, but first I’d have to shed all the gear – the headset, the gloves, the mouthpiece – and that would take longer in the end. So I wait, instead, at the junction which is just as it should be – and yet, not quite. This was a transport interchange, constant with buses and trams, with trains and taxis and cars; above all, with people. And there will be people after we launch – all our users, interacting. Right now, though, the streets are static, silent. It could be crack of dawn on a Sunday morning, if the sun wasn’t centred above me.
‘Ah, Jesus!’ A sudden nauseous stink overwhelms me. I cough and retch as I swipe for the touchpad, my gloved hands clumsy. The headset gets caught in my hair as Marek manoeuvres it off – and I’m blinking, back in the strip-lit lab. I use my tongue to pop the mouthpiece free, and spit it out onto my lap. ‘Water!’ I say, holding up my robot mitts. Marek eases the gloves off, lays them neatly on the trolley before handing me a bottle. I gulp, swooshing away the lingering, rancid smell.
‘Too much?’ says Marek.
‘Just a bit.’ I shake my head as he starts to apologise. ‘Don’t worry. Trial and error.’
‘Do you want to tweak it? Try again?’
A flatness in his voice makes me glance up, check the time. It’s late – after seven. I know Marek has a new baby daughter at home, a girlfriend counting the minutes. I also know he’ll stay on, if I ask him to. I hesitate. Just one more try wouldn’t take us long, and we’re so nearly there. But then I think of Candlemaker Row. How close it is.
‘Let’s leave it,’ I say, casually. ‘Come fresh to it tomorrow.’
When Marek is gone, I rinse the mouthpiece, lay it aside for sterilisation. I should eat something, but that appalling smell has stolen my appetite. I’ll never be hungry again. I glance at the frequencies he used, note down some adjustments to try later on. I could get away with what we’ve got, I’m sure – but it has to be right. Of all the olfactory elements, this is the one we’ll be judged on. This is the one that says Edinburgh. Remember, the first time we smelled it? Late September: the coach nosing its way towards the city centre, and the smell so warm, so thick I could practically chew it. Remember, I pulled a face, and buried my nose in your shoulder; it didn’t yet mean home.
I run my gaze down the Gantt chart, admiring the ticks that show how many smells we’ve recreated. Roasting coffee from the police-box kiosks; fresh cut grass for the Meadows; the damp, closed smell of underground Edinburgh, its vaults and buried streets. My ghost smells are coming along, too: cocoa and rubber from the Fountainbridge factories; and for Princes Street Gardens, a faint reminder of the Nor’ Loch, its previous life as the city’s cesspit.
One day we’ll have ghost people alongside my ghost smells. The technology isn’t there yet – but when it is, we’ll start with the old favourites: Mary Queen of Scots, Deacon Brodie, Robert Louis Stevenson. You’d roll your eyes at that: history for tourists. But how perfect to bring them back, the lives that were woven into this city. And we have to start somewhere.
Half past seven. If I time it right, I’ll catch Rob on his own for a progress update. I loop my pass around my neck, and leave my basement lair.
The ground floor is deserted, silent but for the hum of the vending machine. Its lighted window draws me in; I decide I’m hungry after all. The machine offers me its last remaining sandwich: pushes it forward, lets it drop. Egg mayonnaise. I take it, and carry on upstairs.
In the first floor studio, little pools of light show where a handful of people are working late. There are more of us, usually. Those for whom it’s a labour of love. Who lost the lot, when it happened; lost more than a home. More than a repository of memories. More, even, than a city that was dreamt as much as built; constructed from ideas as much as stone and steel and glass and cladding. I wander from section to empty section – and then I realise. It’s Friday night. Everyone else is tucked up with their families, or out on the town with friends.
Instead of turning back on myself, I press deeper into the studio. I didn’t mean to grow attached to this workspace that’s half science lab, half art school – but I find a sense of purpose here that’s absent from anywhere else. A sense of necessary, urgent invention.
Perhaps some of the urgency comes from the pictures. In my little lab, there’s nothing to see. Grey benches, metal shelving, all my bits and bobs stored neatly in plastic tubs. What we’re creating, Marek and I, it has no external reference, no source material. But here… Sometimes it feels like walking through a brighter version of my own head. Sometimes, it’s like walking through wreckage. In the aftermath, the internet buckled under the weight of memories. It was a tidal wave, millions of people all desperately remembering. Sharing whatever they had, in the hope that sharing would keep it alive. A lot of it was holiday snaps: the predictable route from Castle to Palace; the classic glimpse of New Town elegance through the dark of an Old Town close. Or cameraphone footage: from Calton Hill, the shaky 360 degrees of city … hills … sea… Visitors’ Edinburgh, a tourist fantasy. That’s what you used to say. You dismissed it, said it wasn’t real. You were right, in a way: it was just too beautiful, too ridiculously, heart-stoppingly beautiful, to exist. Perhaps it never did: perhaps we dreamed it. A thousand-year consensual hallucination.
And now here we are – programmers and designers, scientists and sound artists, engineers and animators – all trying our hardest to dream it back.
There was other stuff too, in the tide of images. Architects drawings. City masterplans. Slowly, people began to piece it all together: interactive maps, 3D simulations. Google Earth filled a lot of gaps. A call went out for the overlooked spaces. Thornybauk. Chuckie Pend. And when our project was set up – the Edinburgh Reboot – we gathered it all in.
Each team works on a different section, so as I wander the studio I’m walking through a mad jigsaw: the Canongate bumped up against the Meadows, the Cowgate leading to Moray Crescent. And in some of the photos are people. People like you, mostly. Dead people. I look back in time at a disaster that’s yet to happen; the way the road speeds towards you and vanishes at the same time in the rearview mirror.
At first I think Rob’s gone home for the weekend. His section is dark, lights and screens powered down. It’s the smell that alerts me: malted barley, faint cousin of the aroma I’ve been struggling with. Then I see him, slumped at his desk, hand wrapped round an open beer.
‘Alright?’ he says, tipping the bottle towards me. ‘Want one?’
‘Yeah, sure.’ I perch on the desk opposite his, click the Anglepoise on, and rip open my sandwich. ‘D’you mind if I eat this? Can’t, downstairs; it’s too eggy.’ It’s true: even a packet of crisps, an instant coffee, could taint the air for hours. When Marek first started working with me, I gave him a present of fragrance-free deodorant and unscented washing powder.
I lift my bottle: ‘Cheers.’ In the sharply-angled light, Rob looks knackered, his face criss-crossed with deep dark lines. ‘What are we celebrating?’ I say. ‘Just, Friday night?’
He smiles. Shakes his head. ‘It’s finished,’ he says.
I swallow. Put down my half-eaten sandwich. ‘Seriously?’
‘I mean, there’ll be snagging, obviously, but…’ He raises his fist, like he’d be punching the air if only he had the energy.
‘Wow. Well done, you must be … this should be champagne!’
‘Yeah well, hopefully it’ll get Kate off my back for a bit.’
I nod. His team have been running behind schedule, and everyone says it’s not his fault. It’s a difficult section of the city – small, but difficult. Different levels, sharp angles. The way it all fits together. ‘She seen it yet?’ I say, and he shakes his head.
My mouth is dry; I take a swig of beer. Hear myself asking: ‘Need a walk-through first?’
Rob straightens up in his chair, looks around at the empty office. ‘Ah, no I couldn’t ask you to. What time is it, past eight? You’ll be wanting to get home.’
I set the bottle down. The glass clinking on the desk makes a definite sound. I know how much he needs this. A lot of the staff were never in Edinburgh; some visited once, for a week in August. So people like me, whose lives were there, we’re in demand for walk-throughs. Team leaders tend to approach me cautiously – but I’ve always said yes, and I’ve always been professional. If I’ve ever needed to cry – if, for instance, they’ve asked me to test the Water of Leith from Stockbridge to Roseburn, and I’ve walked in the vanished footsteps of our Sunday strolls, walked all the way along with my hand closed round the absence of yours – then I’ve swallowed my loss; made my report on the authenticity of the terrain; locked myself in the disabled toilet before I fall apart.
‘Honestly,’ I say. ‘I’m dying to see it.’
The testing room is blindingly bright after the dark of the studio. I’ve swapped my trainers for stability shoes, laced them up tight; on the platform, I slot my feet into place. I strap on the support belt and attach it to the safety ring, then Rob helps me on with the rest of the kit: the gloves, the headset. When he settles the headphones over my ears, I can hear my blood thumping.
‘I’m actually kind of nervous,’ he says.
‘Me too.’ But I say it softly, and I’m not sure whether he hears.
The first thing is, the light is wrong. Twilight setting: no good for a walk-through. I should swipe out, ask Rob to change it. But then my eyes adjust, and I see that it’s been raining; and I think how long it’s been waiting for me, this place. Over my shoulder squats Castle Rock, built from code and light, pinning the Grassmarket by the tail under its great rugged weight.
I tilt my head back to see what they’ve done with the sky. Dull, pinkish clouds are tugging across the darkening blue, blown by a wind that doesn’t touch me. As I watch, the clouds pull apart to reveal a two-thirds moon. How long would I have to crane upwards to notice the repeat – the exact same moment looped round again? But they’ve done a good job; I haven’t seen a sky like this before. No wonder it’s taken so long.
I start to walk. Streetlights spill across the wet stone flags, which change to setts under my feet, and back to roughened flagstones. The familiar pubs line the north side of the square, their faces just right – and I’m caught in a sudden wash of music, of voices and laughter, as though a door has opened briefly, as though there are lives inside. The Black Bull. The White Hart. The Last Drop. My chest feels tight. I walk on, past the gallows memorial. Here, by the chip shop, is where I’ll place the stale fat and vinegar tang. Here, by the dark arched mouth of the Cowgate, is where I’ll streak the air with the faint sweetness of urine.
I’m climbing now, up Candlemaker Row. Past the high walls of the kirkyard, the odd assortment of shops, past Deadhead and Transreal and the tattoo parlour. My breath coming faster, legs working harder, as if I really am walking uphill. And when I reach the top of the street, I stop.
Four floors up: there we are. That’s us. They’ve made the tenements too tall, the roofs blurring into the stone-coloured sky, so our flat’s too distant from me. But it’s the only one with a light on. A coincidence, a random choice by Rob or one of his team. I find myself thinking it’s lucky we stayed central, were never lured like our friends to suburbs that will never be rebooted. That we stayed tucked up in our crows-nest flat. Except, of course, if we had moved out – moved far enough from the centre – you and I would be there still. A twisted kind of luck, then. The same luck that meant I was away when it happened: travelling home on a train that shuddered to a halt somewhere outside Berwick, sat stranded while the news blazed through the carriages: impossible, incomprehensible.
Our window glows. Inside, in the kitchen, you would be cooking, keeping an eye on the time: my train gets in soon, and it’s a ten minute walk from Waverley, and you want to have dinner ready. You want to welcome me back.
I cross the road.
The familiar black of our front door. The lintel, sand-rough and cold. The handle, smooth against my palm. I grasp it. Turn it. Press my weight against the door, and push.
Nothing happens. Of course. Nothing can happen. There is no inside. If the door could move, it would only swing open to absence.
I hear my name – and just for a moment, I let myself believe. You’re calling me. You have the sash drawn up, and you’re leaning out, looking down at me. You think I must have forgotten my keys, and that’s why I’m waiting. That’s why I’m stuck outside.
Rob calls again. He wants to know, is something wrong? Has it frozen? Do I need a restart? Everything’s fine, I tell him. Turn around, and cross the street once more.
I start to think of what’s missing, what’s not quite right; turning in a slow circle, trying to do my job. I let my gaze sweep loosely over spires and blocks and towers – and there’s something wrong about the angles, or I think so at first – but then, how could I remember? How could I be expected to remember? Chances are he’s got it right – Rob, who never lived here, who didn’t know these walls, these stones, this sky. With all his source material, chances are his version is truer than mine. I can’t keep it all inside; can’t keep it forever.
I carry on turning. The small silhouette of Greyfriars Bobby, endlessly waiting on his plinth, too daft to understand the finality of death. I walk around to the front of the statue, to check his nose. I can’t fault it: shiny, brassy as if from all the hands that have rubbed for luck.
Gently, I rest the tips of my fingers against the worn bronze.
‘Stupid animal,’ I say.
I raise my hand towards the touch panel, ready to come out.
That’s when I see it. A flicker, up at the kitchen window: like someone moving behind the glass, crossing the room.
‘Rob–’ I say, and my voice sounds panicked and then I press my lips shut. In the time it takes to refocus, the movement has gone.
I can hear Rob in the other world asking what’s the matter, but I tune him out. I call your name instead: in silence, inside me. I call you like a summons.
If I wait long enough, I’ll see the repeat, the exact same glitch come round again. Or I’ll see you cross the room, and come to the glass, and look in my direction.
You have to start somewhere; that’s why we’re rebuilding – but it’s not the smell of the brewery that means home. It’s not this dreamed, split-level city. It’s not the glowing window in the gathering dark. All of this is only a frame, was only ever a frame. For us. For you.
I stare, trying not to blink. Watching, waiting, for the flicker against the light.