The Edinburgh weather had finally turned warm and Sal celebrated by binning her socks. Her feet were too hot in boots and the socks seemed determined to crawl down around her heels. A bad idea; the boots rubbed her bare feet and soon every step was torture.
‘Willie, can we no turn in? Ma feet are killing me.’
‘Sorry, hen, no yet. The path’ll be mobbed wi’ people, first wee blink ae sun and they aw think they’re in Spain.’
Their new sleeping spot was a secret. They’d inherited it from Wee Eric, who didn’t need it on account of being housed in Saughton Prison for three months. They were careful to make sure that no one saw them go in or out.
It was after ten before Willie eventually relented. He had to take her hand to steady her as she hobbled down the cobbled wynd that curved round below Dean Bridge. They made their way under its huge arches and sat on the wall, waiting for the path to be empty. The next bit was even more difficult than normal; she simply couldnae climb the steep slope in her boots. She kicked them off and it was a relief tae feel the cool earth under her toes as Willie took her hand and hauled her up the slope. They reached the top and retrieved their sleeping bags from their hiding place, before crawling under the bridge overhang.
‘Listen to me pechin. Ah think mebbe Eric forgot that Ah’m no that young anymore.’
‘Ah think yer fitter than Eric, he’s that busy sticking stuff in his airm he forgets to eat,’ Sal replied.
She cooried into her sleeping bag right up against Willie and they shared a litre of cider as they watched the last of the pink light drain out ae the sky behind the grand houses on the high bank opposite. It was beautiful. The noise of the traffic diminished tae the occasional car over the bridge, leaving only the sound ae the rushing stream below.
There was only a few hours of darkness before the light started tae come back and the birds went crazy wi singing. Sal wriggled out of her sleeping bag to inspect her sore feet; they didnae look too good. Blisters had burst on both her heels and little toes, and her feet were extra filthy from the walk up the bank. She exchanged a glance with Willie. Nothing was said, but they both remembered that Molly had died of blood poisoning the year before, after letting her dirty feet get infected.
‘Come on, Sal, Ah’ve got just the thing,’ he said. He grabbed the poly bag he’d been trailing about all the day before and helped her back down the hill to the path. ‘Wait here on me,’ he instructed. He came back with a wooden pallet they had passed propped against the bins at the top of the hill.
‘This is just the job,’ he said triumphantly.
‘What are you on aboot?’ Sal asked.
‘Come and ye’ll see. Ye’ll need to put yer boots on fer the next bit.’ He led her through a gate and down a path through the undergrowth, until they reached a wall, beyond which was a five-foot drop to the riverbank.
‘Ah’ve thought aboot this afore, but Ah couldnae work oot how we’d get back up again, watch this.’
Willie lowered the pallet down to the river bank until it was propped against the wall, then hoisted himself onto it before helping Sal follow, then they used the pallet slats like a ladder to get down to ground level.
‘First of aw breakfast.’ He pulled out a handful of biscuit wrappers; each held a single shortbread finger, where there had once been two.
‘Katya,’ Sal said, before taking and devouring the sweet biscuits.
Willie had befriended this Polish chambermaid fae the Caley Hotel. He used to doss in the graveyard opposite before he got moved on. She would chat to him when she left work. Now she sometimes gave him things from the rooms that were heading for the bin.
They were seated on two boulders, and from this angle it was as if they were alone in the middle ae the countryside. They watched a little yellow bird flitting between the stones, bobbing its tail up and down, while the noisy river rushed past.
‘This is braw,’ Sal said.
‘It’s mair than just braw, it’s your personal spa.’ He produced a couple of tiny cakes of soap from the bag. ‘Coz Ah’m afraid tae tell ye that yer feet are maukit.’
Sal laughed, then took the soap to the river and dipped in her foot. ‘It’s bloody freezing!’ she shouted.
‘Shoosh, you, ye dinnae want tae wake oor posh neighbours.’
The streets were now out of sight, but nearby on either side of the river, were some of the most expensive properties in Edinburgh. Soon her legs were numb but clean, and then she pulled off her jumper and scrubbed her face, neck and even her oxters.
‘Ah feel like one ae they Norwegians,’ she said with a grin.
‘Whativir floats yer boat,’ he replied with a laugh, face all covered in soap.
Sal clambered back to the bank over the green slippery stones. She eyed her boots, reluctant to put them back on.
‘Gie me those, Ah’ll carry them.’ He reached into the bag and pulled out a pair of white hotel slippers.
‘You’re bloody brilliant,’ she said.
They climbed up the pallet and back to the path. They sat on the benches beside the old millstones and polished off the rest of the biscuits, while her feet dried off.
‘Noo that yer smellin’ like a lily, we’ll go doon Stockbridge and find ye some better shoes fer the summer, there’s hunners ae charity shops doon there and Ah ken a couple that’ll gie us a good deal. And Ah’ve got one more trick.’ He tossed her a small packet. ‘It’s one a they free bags from a plane.’
Inside was toothbrush and paste, plus a pair of socks.
Sal kissed his stubbly cheek. ‘Ah love you,’ she said.
About the author:
Jane Simpson Anderson lived in Egypt until 2012, her first novel Haunting Egypt (so far unpublished), was chosen for the short list on the Scottish Book Trust New Writer Award in 2014. Home Beneath a Bridge is based on a chapter from her second novel Obligations of Love. She completed this Edinburgh-based story in 2016, encouraged by the tutor and co-students on a Curtis Brown course. The novel’s opening was long-listed for The 2016 Exeter Novel Prize.