Returning Home

by Hilary Jocelyn

January 25th was Robbie Burns Day, and all around the world many of us Scots gathered, to celebrate the poet, to eat haggis and maybe to dance a reel or two. I decided to post this account of my recent trip back to Scotland, so pour yourselves a wee cuppa tea, and sit and sip as you read this blog…..

……The doors opened. Slowly the surge forward began, as we shuffled towards the space that lured us out into the sunshine. I couldn’t see clearly through the haze of tears that had begun, unsought and unbidden, to swarm up in my eyes, as I blundered along, clutching my bag and going with the flow. I finally reached the door and clambered down the steps of the plane onto the runway below. As my feet touched the ground, impulsively I stepped aside and knelt on the tarmac. I bent down to put my lips to the ground, and gave my beloved Scottish Earth a welcome kiss.

 I was back home. I breathed in through the wetness in my nose and on my face, and inhaled the smell that even now, as I write these words, brings to me a subconscious longing and a tightening in my throat. It was the smell of my hometown – Edinburgh. A mélange of the local breweries, of the distillery, and of the pig farms. Of sheep manure, with perhaps even a tinge of turnips growing in the field. It sat in my nostrils, as memories wafted back at me, of my life in this city before I moved, as an almost 30-year-old adult, across the ocean to Canada.

It had been three years since I had returned, due to the pandemic, and now, here I was, about to revisit my heartfelt places, to reconnect with my sisters, my sister-in-law, and to hug and dance with my very best and dearest childhood friend. In spite of the 23-hour journey, with many delays and a four-hour wait in the middle of the night at Dublin airport, here I was, fully charged and pinching myself in disbelief that I was actually here after all this time.

I exited the airport and found a seat on a tram that would take me to the city centre in a few short minutes. As if she had been assigned the role of official welcomer, the woman sitting beside me started chatting to me about her grandchildren in the distinct local dialect, using the words from my past that I hadn’t heard in so long. Hen. Lassie. Bairn. Braw. And then, as she moved on to her thoughts about her son-in-law, her words shifted to Eejit. Waister. Dafty.

I got off near the city centre and began dragging my suitcase and hauling my backpack along the short walk to the home of my sister-in-law, where I was going to spend a few days catching up and revising my old haunts. I called out “hello” to the familiar. To the maroon-coloured buses as they drove by, filled with people going to work in the early morning dreich. To the castle, perched high on the rock above. To the buildings that lined the streets, built in the familiarness of grey stone granite. To the many millions of things that lay in my subconscious memory reminding me, in so many ways, of my days gone by.

At this point though, I was anxious to sit down with my sister-in-law and have a cup of tea. To catch up with her, and to laugh and share and swap and listen, and to indulge in a bit of breakfast. My pace quickened at the thought. We had opposite life stories. She had transported herself from Canada to Scotland after meeting herself a Scottish man, and I had done exactly the reverse.

I was almost there. My case bounced off the kerbs of the cobbled streets. Just down the hill and across a high bridge and then  I could rest and relax. Suddenly, I noticed that cars were being turned around by a police officer, who had planted herself in the middle of the narrow road, just at the beginning of the bridge. She approached me officiously, reminding me by the lack of bulge around her hips, that of course the Scottish embodiment of law enforcers do not carry guns. However, armed or not, she towered over me with authority oozing out of her every pore as she spoke.

‘Sorry ma’am the bridge is closed.’ 

‘Oh but I just have to get to the other side ‘ I said hopefully and thinking that surely a pedestrian would not interfere with the road works I assumed they were about to begin.

‘No’ she replied firmly .’You can’t pass here.’

I looked around for evidence of a reason and finding none, I pushed the envelope just a little bit further.

‘Why not?’ I asked politely, giving her my best Hilary smile.   

‘I can’t say.’ She replied.  ‘It’s confidential. You’ll have to find another way across’

Hmm… that wasn’t quite good enough for me. I know the city well, and to get to my destination by another route would lead me on a long and winding road. Up, around, down, across, under, and then back up. My cuppa tea distanced itself from me as I calculated that this unexplained detour would take me about an hour. I decided to envelope push a tiny bit more. I quavered to her that I had come all the way from Canada, travelling for over 23 hours, that I’d had no sleep, that I was only a few minutes from my sister-in-law’s house, that I hadn’t exchanged my dollars into pounds so couldn’t do the taxi thing.  I dramatized my sob sob story with a bit of legitimate emotion and handwringing. But she was relentless in the face of my appeal.

She looked around her. There was no one else within earshot.

‘Look ma’am’ she said, avoiding my gaze, ‘I’m not supposed to tell you this, but some crazy person jumped off the bridge an hour ago, and they didn’t survive. It’s obviously suicide, but we still have to go through a lot of red tape. I just can’t let you through.’

I gulped painfully and turned away from her wordlessly. Suddenly, I didn’t care that I had an extra few trudging miles to go. Empathy and sorrow oozed out of me. I thought of that poor person, who had felt that they had no option but to jump off the bridge into the water pouring below. Suicide. Nothing crazy about it. Just pain, suffering, misery, loneliness, and the harshness and hopelessness of the world in front of them.

I retraced my steps, beginning my long unavoidable detour, and as I moved along, I wished that I had been on the bridge an hour earlier, and perhaps been able to spot a desperate someone, as they climbed over the railing. Maybe, just maybe, I would have been able to say the kind of things that they needed to hear. Maybe, just maybe, I could have helped them to find the tiny grain of hope, that could help them to see that, maybe, just maybe, their life could be worth living. Often, someone who listens, and someone who cares, can make the difference, and can bring someone back from the edge of the bridge.

I breathed in the air and my luggage felt lighter, in comparison to the sudden oppressive heaviness of my thoughts and memories. I wearily began my trek through the Edinburgh streets, looking downwards at my feet. I walked, dragging my case behind me, with my heavy pack on my back, immune for awhile, to the pleasures of my homecoming that were surrounding me.

After a few streets had been crossed, and numerous cobblestones had been bounced over by the wobbly wheels of my luggage, I began to thaw a bit from my melancholy remembrances. I  realized that I could, of course, make room for lots of happiness, as well as sorrow,  in this much dreamed about homecoming.  I lifted my eyes up from my toes again, and began to see the path ahead.  I admired the view of the city, and the distant flow of the luminous Firth of Fourth River on the horizon. I saw the hills in the distance where, many years ago, my now far-away Love and I, had absorbed our first kiss. I then passed by the high-end group of clothing shops, where as a child, my mother and I would enviously survey the enticing fashions of the time, through their glamourous windows. And then, I smiled, ear to ear, cheek to cheek.

 I wandered on through the familiar alleyways and shortcuts that I knew like the curls in my hair, and noticed with joy, like a  Canadian coming out of winter hibernation, that the spring blossoms were emerging in the gardens around me. Suddenly, a commotion from behind made me stop and turn around. There were several dozen children, all decked out in the Scottish grey of the universal school uniform, running down the street to the school opposite, laughing and screaming out loud in the morning air. Scottish voices all around me.

I gave them a hearty wave and moved on to my fast-approaching destination.

When I got to the welcoming warm of my sister-in-law, the kettle was on, and the tea would soon be steeping in the pot.

This past week was Bell “Let’s Talk” week. If you or anyone you know is thinking about suicide, help is available. Call 811 and ask to speak to a mental health worker, or call Tel-Aide Outaouais at 819 775 3223.