After four years of living in Scotland, I finally head up to Aberdeen to visit my old friend Becka, to escape from Edinburgh life for a while.
I take the train to Inverkeithing, crossing the Forth rail bridge for the first time. The view is beautiful, like gliding above a rocky archipelago, but muted by rain and the dim bluish light of an overcast Scottish winter afternoon, near-twilight before time.
From there I get a lift with Becka's boy along dark roads, free-flowing and uncrowded, if busy by Scottish standards. I reflect that one of the great things about Scotland in general is its paucity of people.
Aberdeen is notoriously grey, but it's the glittering grey of granite, not the concrete colourlessness that afflicts so much of Britain. There is a heaviness to the town, a proud but good-natured seriousness. It is built on rock, shaped by the cold sea wind and spray.
On Saturday morning we have a street market to sell at, so we rise with the sun and set up stall by nine o'clock. There are four of us - Becka with her silver insects, me with my polymer clay creatures, Emma with her felty Christmas crafts and her nine-year-old son. We are also selling for another friend of Becka's who makes coppery jewellery, flowers and leaves.
Custom is slow, the stall shoved into a side-road off the main drag; for the most part people just don't turn this way. It's a mercy that there are four of us, so that we can each take long breaks in the warmth when we need to. Becka doesn't make much more than enough to pay for the stall, a third of what she'd expect, and though many people pick up my critters and say nice things as they pass, at four o'clock I head back to her flat without any sales to my name. Soon after I leave, though, an American comes along and spends sixty pounds, fifteen of it on two of my cats. I'm not going to make minimum wage this way, but at least the day isn't a total loss.
That night we head to a 'Doric cabaret'. This is not much like a normal cabaret; we're talking folk songs, often with a patriotic or proudly-Doric bent, Highland dancing and dour comedians. It's good fun, if a bit odd for a visiting Englishman, and quite often incomprehensible. Educationally so, though - I make some notes on the local dialect as I figure out what they're talking about.
On Sunday we head to the gallery-cafe Becka runs almost single-handedly in Balmedie, just outside of Aberdeen. It's a lovely place, full of beautiful objects, and I'm glad to finally set up a display of my sculptures there. The coffee's good, too, and it makes me happy to see that they sell oolong tea, after one of the regulars pressed a box of bags on them.
On Sunday I stay at Dan's in Footdee (sometimes spelt and usually pronounced 'Fittie') – an old fishing village nestled in one corner of the city, where the river Dee meets the sea. It's an amazingly beautiful place, and on Monday morning I enjoy exploring the sandy beach a minute or two down the road. For all the sunshine it's freezing cold, totally exposed; my fingers soon seize up in the North Sea winds when I take my camera out for a few shots of the sea and the burgeoning storm clouds building over it.
Tuesday is spent exploring the city itself, sheltering in the library and looking for jobs. In the evening Dan and I sit around, chatting and singing while a fire burns in the hearth. He plays the guitar with flair, and as an inept guitarist at best it's nice to sing with accompaniment for once. At the end of a decent rendition of 'Me and the Major' Jed comes in, applauding. She is another old friend of Becka's who is staying here for now, and another singer-guitarist. She gives me a bit of a guitar lesson and sings one of her own songs for me after Dan heads to bed. 'It's an Eternity of Compost.'
On Wednesday I head with her to the cafe, which has late-night shopping and a Santa's Grotto going on in the evening. I am put to work oiling locks and breaking up a pile of wood so that it fits in the cafe's stove, surely the most productive half-hour of stomping in my life so far. In quiet moments I knock out a couple of epoxy putty cats and fridge magnets, and Jed whips up dragons from wire stripped out of old television sets. Much mulled wine is drunk, and someone buys two of my cats from the display. This is festive cheer at its best, I think. Even I am not that far from cheerful by the time we leave.
We head back to Becka's afterwards and watch 'The City of Lost Children', and we both end up staying the night there; it's just so much easier. In fact, I don't leave Becka's until ten the next night, after a Thursday spent finding and applying for jobs on the internet, baking some critters, uploading a few pictures, talking about the nature of art and whatnot with Becka's flatmate.
On Friday I take the train back to Edinburgh.