Some cliches contain a lot of truth. New Year often provides a time of reflection. It's a time to pause and put things into perspective. A particularly uncomfortable journey back north to Edinburgh on the 27th in an overcrowded train was a draining annoyance. The vestibules were crammed with many passengers unable to find a seat (due to the previous train being cancelled) and miscellaneous bags tumbling all over the place. But we got home pretty much on time. Truth be told, not much to grumble about.
A false step
A couple of days later, I visited an old family friend who I will refer to as Jim, confined to his small flat after badly fracturing an arm. A couple of weeks since the accident, his arm still 'feels like rubber' and remains badly swollen. It badly curtails him. It 'takes a hell of a time to do anything'.
The accident occurred prior to Christmas, during the really cold snap. Out for a walk in the Braids, he slipped on the ice and fell heavily onto rocky ground. Jim's aware that it probably was a bit risky being out on that icy day, even though he was wearing proper hiking boots with good grip.
He knew immediately that he was in trouble. Due to the bitingly cold weather, there were very few people out. Plus, Jim has a habit of going out without a mobile phone. This was an occasion when he could have done with one. He recalled being in 'a stunned haze' with his whole right side numb. Lying on the slope, with his head well below the height of his feet, he was conscious enough to make sure he turned his body round. In time, blood to the head and sense were regained. He had a hard time getting up.
Eventually, he staggered groggily down Howe Dean Path. Near the foot, he managed to catch the attention of another walker by himself. 'I'm in trouble here… I think I've done myself in.' Very fortunately, the other man was a GP who quickly assessed that Jim was badly injured and still in a state of shock. Wrapping him in his jacket, the doctor supported a faltering Jim along the Hermitage of Braid path and along the burn side towards Liberton Brae, where the doctor was parked.
Then to the Royal Infirmary. Here the real agony started. Both physically as the shock wore off and then in terms of encountering a very stretched A&E department. The NHS is apparently in a fragile condition, with 'critical incidents' regularly being announced. Jim found himself at the front line at the very worst time of the year. He was sympathetic to the staff who seemed to be 'run off their feet' dealing with the vast 'thoroughfares blocked by trolleys'.
Jim waited on the trolley in a corridor for at least 10 hours until a specialist saw him, at around 4am. Perhaps he was lucky; media stories speak of patients waiting 20 or more hours. After getting a ward spot, Jim was well aware that the bed was being jealously eyed. He wasn't going to be there that long. A mobility test the next morning determined he was one of the 'walking wounded', capable of coping at home. Beds were needed by those in dire need. Over the course of the night, he realised how badly those in neighbouring beds were suffering.
Jim is not a man to whom discomfort is anything new. In previous conversations, we've discussed his early life. His tales were full of risky escapades (including a nasty fall into Newhaven Harbour) allied to mischievous humour. Also evident in his voice and his eyes was a degree of bitterness about limited opportunities and snobberies. He grew up in orphanages (Dean Bank House on Canaan Lane and Redhall) before time in Lanark for 'training in general skills'. 'I suppose they were training me for a job – it was designed for those without proper education.'
He spent his working life in physically demanding jobs, usually with very early morning starts. This included a spell at Murchies Dairy in Tollcross, usually starting at 5am. 'I was living in Upper Gilmore Place at the time in digs. The lady used to get me up at 4:30 in the morning but I still struggled to get along the road.' He eventually left due to the sheer noise of the place: 'I think I still have an inner ear disorder because of that'.
For 20 years or so, Jim worked as a cleaner at King's Buildings, University of Edinburgh. Wielding the heavy floor polishers left his arms and back aching. The work he did undoubtedly contributed to the arthritic conditions he now suffers from. In recent years, some of the fingers of his left hand have become close to rigid. In this sense, he is used to a lack of mobility. But not being able to get out and walk is a limitation he feels deeply. Observing a bright winter sun from the window only makes the situation worse.
A sense of freedom
Since childhood he's always enjoyed the escape of getting out and exploring. A sense of freedom. Whether it be escaping the confines of the orphanages and exploring the city or, as an adult, discovering a real love of hillwalking. For a number of years, he was a member of the Ptarmigan Mountaineering Club, surviving some 'hairy moments' on the Scottish peaks. Failing to take advice was usually the cause of these. Jim freely admits to having a strong stubborn streak and a tendency to be cheeky to authority figures. Two other hobbies, photography and painting, also draw on his love of the hills. Unfinished on his easel is a mountain view. Currently, confined to his apartment, he lacks inspiration.
His days of climbing Munros are long gone, but living near Blackford Hill and the Braids still gives him great joy. The Blackford Glen, with the Braid Burn gurgling through it, is undoubtedly one of the city's most beautiful spots. The poet Robert Ferguson talked of forgetting 'the city's allurements' and retreating to 'this spot of enchantment'. There is certainly a magical feel to the place on a bright day, different from what one would normally expect from a city. It is a place where I have enjoyed walks in deep snow and golden sunshine. As you rest in the shadow of Agassiz Rock, you are reminded of the slow passing of time by its glacial striations. As such, it's a soothing, calming spot.
His story recounted and his fridge restocked, I left Jim to rest and recuperate. Recently, he picked up a pedal exerciser that allows him to maintain his leg muscles. He's hoping that as soon as the arm has healed sufficiently, he can be back out on his favourite slopes. His GP tells him 'just go the course... it is healing… be patient'. Jim admits that he's lost confidence in his walking, aware that every step requires care and attention. Getting down the stairs of the building requires an adapted walking technique. A technique he finds difficult to stick to. Knowing how long it takes to get downstairs just adds to his sense of being hemmed in.
Despite the deep discomfort (especially the difficulties lying in bed) and being so confined, he's aware that he is in some ways fortunate. His relatively modern flat is cosy and easy to heat, and he has a few regular visitors. His love of history and classical music helps too in passing long hours. Though the painkillers make him drowsy, he's making decent progress through Orlando Figes Natasha's Dance: A Cultural History of Russia
The history of the Cold War era is a particular interest of Jim's. It's something he has relished since taking adult education classes at Stevenson College in the 1980s. These filled in some of the gaps he had from his school days in Gorgie (St Nicholas School). His limited reading and writing ability held him back. 'Before that, the things I wrote down were basically gobbledygook. I was so embarrassed by what I wrote. I didn't really know how to structure sentences and paragraphs.'
Though Jim recounts the details of the accident and its aftermath without obvious emotion, it has clearly taken its toll. The experience has left him feeling 'a bit forlorn' at a time of general Christmas merriment. However, he's aware of the less fortunate, struggling in the cold snap. He recently gave away his sleeping bag (from his hillwalking days) to a homeless guy who frequents his local area. He's reminded of another homeless contact of his who froze to death in East Lothian a few years ago during another cold winter spell: 'No-one should be outside in such weather'.
Jim's profound hope for 2023 is to be back on the local hills, enjoying his favourite walk from near the Braid Hills Hotel, traversing right across the Braids and then down into Blackford Glen. Every day he is taking cautious steps in that direction. A few days later, I hear Jim's voice on the phone. It will, he fears, be at least nine weeks until the arm is properly healed. 'At my age, a compound fracture takes a long time.' At this rate, it will be March before he's back gingerly making his way through the umbrageous trees of the Hermitage and on up the Braids. This time, I hope, making sure to head home before the sun and temperature drop.
Charlie Ellis is a researcher and EFL teacher who writes on culture, education and politics. He thanks Kat Lucas for her comments on a previous version of this piece.