I suppose it starts with jazz, as all good tales must. I’m in Edinburgh, the day is July 25th. After a supper of Indian food in old town, I cross the street to the venue of my night’s entertainment: The Jazz Bar. I descend from cobblestone to black steps and the lighting shifts from twilight to the choice LED red, which speckles the basement lounge. It is 8:45, or thereabouts.
To the door-keep — a tough looking Scot betrayed by soft eyes and an easy demeanour (we’d spoken an hour earlier when I pre-bought my entry) — I say, “Hello, I’m back,” and then, passing, and caught up by a creased novel laid open in the cash bin: “Are you reading Dune?”
“Aye,” he replies, with a smile.
We have a brief exchange about the book, brass music blasting over our pleasantries, then I step past him and into the room.
Inside, I face a dilemma. It has nothing to do with the what I could already tell to be excellent jazz music coming from the large band at the far end of the small room, but instead has to do with seating. My choice to not arrive during the band’s rehearsal starting at eight punishes me now, with little selection remaining.
Round tables and chairs fill the floor; booths, one wall; the bar, the other. Immediately I saw my opening and immediately it became my dilemma as well. Two beautiful blondes, around my age, are sat at the booth nearest the band. At their table is an empty chair. Three glasses on the tabletop — one belonging to an older trombonist I see saying small jokes to the girls—, two for the girls themselves. The chair is empty. The place is full, all the chairs are oriented towards the stage — I know it would be fine to sit with them.
I approach the bar to better assess the scene. Short bursts of Jazz fill the air, loud and dazzling, as the great band continues with their warm-up. The bartender is a character — he doesn’t say a thing. I lean in, deliver my order. He just nods, his mouth unmoving. His hair is two inches long, his beard is the same, and his moustache hides his lips. He carries a permanent frown but for him it was as good as a smile. He makes a delicious highball for me — vodka with their house-made ginger beer.
I turn back to the room. My dilemma persists. My blood pressure doubles at the thought of talking to the girls who seemed quite engrossed in their own conversation. They smile openly. For my pride, there is no other choice; I make my way for their table, across the front row. Jazz swirls around me. I move like you do when you are blocking people’s view. The one closest to me wears a black shoulderless top. Her hair is curly blonde. Close — I fall short. I turn and ask a man of seventy if the seat beside him is taken. It is not and I sit down, inwardly ashamed.
The warm-up continues. Seventeen members of the marvellous big band blare in synchronicity. Five saxophones, four trombones, and four trumpets are held aloft by thirteen male musicians aged thirty to sixty-five. They play their great boat of sound atop the river of rhythm maintained by a bassist, a pianist, a brilliant young drummer and a sly young guitarist with hair and even a face like Rick Astley. It grooves.
I say nothing to the old man beside me. I sip my drink thinking of how I can shift two seats over to the ladies. Behind me, the crowd is spilling over. Drawn in no doubt by the banging sound, a small crowd stands where I was moments before, by the door and the bar. I peek around as subtly as I can; my eyes shift to the girls, the standers, the free seats scattered amongst the tables, a group of fellas eyeing me and the seats as well, back to the girls. Blood pressure is at double again, I practice lines in my head to rationalize my shift to their table. The old trombonist says something and they laugh. I am close. The Jazz stops, then it starts again.
Before I know it, the group of young guys is at the front row as well, asking if there is a way they can take a seat. I immediately seize the opportunity. I stand, I say: “I can move over, you guys can sit here — I’m alone.” It’s not entirely rational but they don’t notice. One of them says in thanks: “Oh, you are a leg-end, man.” A shuffle, a “do you mind if I sit here?” to the girls, and I’ve succeeded. I’m beside them and facing the band. After a moment, the warm-up is finished, and in the next, the band members are up, getting a drink from the bar. I am back to rehearsing lines for the girls in my head. My train of thought and eavesdropping are interrupted—
“You been ‘ere before?” It’s not the girl on my right elbow but the lad on my left.
I admit to him my tourist status, say it is my first time. He tells me for him, and the two guys with him, it’s the same, though they are not tourists. They are locals; two grew up in Leith, just fifteen minutes away, and the one beside me is from Poland but has been in Edinburgh for five years. He learned English with a Scottish accent. He says it confuses Poles and Scots alike — Poles hear him speak English first and are surprised at his fluent Polish; and Scots think he is from a distant northern town for his peculiar dialect.
I am still thinking about the girls and if I might have an in. The Pole is a musician — a DJ (yes) — we both dig the jazz immensely, and I say I stopped playing the drums when I was a kid but tell him about my writing. We get along well and I get this feeling, one I’ve had repeatedly on this trip, that I recognize him. But of course, I don’t.
The jazz set starts and the girls stop talking to each other and we all quiet down. Brass vibrates like it’s accidental and perfect all at once. They play maybe ten songs and after each we are told the soloist who bewitched us. The horns are brilliant and resonant but I favour the rhythm foundation: the cheeky sly guitarist and the inexorable bassist. The Pole and I agree that the drummer is the cleanest player, he misses nothing and his sticks flicker with intent — his solo in the last song is swift, it knocks us all of balance, it’s staggering.
The set ends and I’ve still not spoken to the girls. I think of asking what they are doing next. The three lads stand. The two only now see that I am talking with the Pole, and they introduce themselves — the Pole laughs, we realize we’ve not given our names, so we do. He is Gilbert. His SoundCloud is gilbothecreator. The others are Brodie and Louis.
The girls step around us and walk to the stairs. I’ve not forgotten about them but they’re leaving.
In an exchange that is slow and polite at first then settled swiftly like a business deal, I am offered to come along with the fellows to wherever they’re going next and I eagerly accept. We’re glad — they to host a first-timer like me and I to hitch along with some locals. We make our way out.
Up at street level, the girls are saying bye to a cool bloke smoking on the curb. The boys embrace him and I am introduced. Rounding out their quartet is Jake and I am firmly established as the tag-along. Jake is “absolutely chapped” he couldn’t join us for the jazz but he arrived too late to be let in.
“Wait a minute — what were you doing chattin’ to those ladies, Jakey?” Brodie asks, poking him in the ribs.
Down the road, the girls blink out of sight at a corner and we never see them again.
“Eh, youse were catching the jazz, I was just talking to them up here, havin’ a smoke,” says Jake.
Gilbert is ecstatic. It’s brought to my attention that Jake has been gone in Copenhagen for a long time and the boys are happy to have him back.
These four remind me so strongly of my friend group back home that I am immediately enraptured. In my head, I can see one-to-one attributes paired between these guys and my lifelong friends.
All four are skateboarders. Before we’ve made it to the end of the block, they are talking skating. Although I am not a bonafide skater, I can hang. They seem to take to me. We make it to a bar only two streets over and we’re denied entry. It turns out many clubs in Edinburgh have a strict dress code stipulating garments that will bar one’s access: sporting jerseys, sandals, and, without exception, track pants — or “trackies” as they call them. And poor Gilbo is wearing trackies. Their bartering is ineffective and we’re out on the street again.
As we make for another bar, I identify the group’s unconscious structure. Brodie is the leader, it’s made quickly clear — as we’re walking, Gilbert hesitates in telling me a specific story; he checks with Brodie first and he approves — (they proceed to relay the events of a night they trespassed on a royal property in the city and later had to make an appearance in court). Brodie’s five nine with straight brown hair. He wears a hat, button down shirt, Dickie trousers, and thrasher branded Vans. I learn later the shirt was embroidered by his girlfriend with a skater grinding a rail. Endearingly, he enjoys his own stories and often the finals words of his sentences are pushed out between screeches of laughter.
Gilbert seem to be like everyone’s younger brother despite them all being twenty years old. (Yes, there was a pang in my soul when the math revealed a half-decade’s gap between them and myself. I’ll say: I did not notice their juniority even though I knew their age early in the night; either they were mature or I am not as much as I thought I was.) He’s perhaps five seven, sports a more proper English lad’s haircut, which shapes his dark curls into a stylish fade on the sides, and longer on top. He wears the aforementioned trackies, a baggy jacket, skate shoes. He’s a good looking guy with a cheeky smile and is prone to friendly shoving when they all chat.
Louis is the lieutenant. He’s five eleven, short dark straight hair, cut to an average length all the way around, with bangs. His North Face jacket is zipped all the way up to the collar and his pants are well fitted. A small bag hangs off his shoulder and he’s got good posture. He speaks with in a level tone and despite having many beers at the jazz bar, does not show any drunkenness. He’s also level headed in his opinions and stories, not drawn to exaggeration or sarcasm. He’s asks me questions about my travels.
Jake is outside the power dynamic and outside the norms of the group. He doesn’t drink or do drugs. His only remaining vice, which he hopes to kick soon, is the smoking of his hand-rolled cigarettes. His hair is buzzed close to scalp and his subtle plaid Supreme jacket is snapped closed at the neck. His pants are beyond oversized and cinched tight at the waist and rolled up at the ankles to reveal his black Adidas sneakers. As with his life choices, he is measured too in his speech, his movements, his expression. His reservation is enigmatic and alluring. He emanates self-assurance and a strong internal purpose. I make a note to chat with him later if I can.
We don’t even attempt three more bars as their signs do the job of their bouncers. Gilbert debates running home to change. We’ve ended up very close to the hostel where I am staying and I offer him my spare pants. Brodie likes this idea but I can tell Gilbert doesn’t want to risk his style. Jake teases, “they’re not gonna fit you anyways, mate,” then under his breath, “you giggly little midget.” Louis laughs. We come upon ‘Sneaky Petes’ — which, if you couldn’t tell by the name, is much more relaxed in their dress code. We pay three pound each to get in and all of us but Jake buy a drink. It’s eleven, and as small as the compact little club is, the dance floor is practically empty. The boys step out for a smoke. I decide to run home and drop some layers. I’m back before they’re done their cigarettes and I prefer to listen to and participate in their banter over the hammering of the dance music inside anyways.
We go back inside and dance in a huddle for a while, then we finish our drinks and go. Jake is relieved. After missing the jazz, he’s jonzing for some live music — plus, he says, shaking is head, “I just can’t bring myself to it, not places like this,” referring to Sneaky Petes.
Gilbert, abashed, tells me and the guys that he has made other arrangements. An offer was made to him earlier in the night and now he must take it; a lady beckons — we understand. I trade Instragram handles with him and say goodbye. The lads, after some teasing, wish him Godspeed and they’ll see him later. Brodie and he work at the same bar where they both DJ.
Once he’s gone, I ask the guys if they know who he’s gone to see — they say they do not — and another attribute is paired with a friend back home. Gilbert is a sly dog. I know many.
We go down the street to ‘Stramash!’ — no cover charge. Inside a band is bellowing great Celtic folk tunes. The venue is inside an old church; at the foot of the stage is a dancing pit, with a bar beside, and up on the second floor (or, as they confusingly label it here — the first floor) there is a ringed balcony, another bar, and more quieter seating behind. At a remote round table, under a halo of tavern light, we find our place. We drop the pints on the table and sit in the four chairs. We talk. We drink. Celtic drums, flute, and fiddle warm us.
Louis and Jake go out for another smoke. Brodie and I take a chance to really chat.
He tells me about growing up in Leith, the culture of living in Edinburgh. How it is a tough place to live mentally, that many people have substance abuse problems. He talks of his own struggles as a teen. We talk about travelling, where he’d like to go.
Jake and Louis come back. I talk with Jake about writing — he says he does some as well and I joke with him that I hope to see it. He says he doesn’t show it to anybody but I say I have heard that before. We also talk about the life in Edinburgh. He wants to go back to Copenhagen as soon as he can; he wants to end up there long term. He’s only back to save up money. He would like to call himself Straight edge but he’s gotta kick the smoking habit. Louis, Brodie wish to quit as well.
We all talk books. I get some recommendations. The Celtic songs stop for a break and then their back. It’s two o’clock. We move to watch the band from the balcony. The dance floor is three quarters full. I like to people watch. The music is great. At one point, the three musicians play what the boys call the true national anthem — I can’t remember the name, but the entire bar sings along. Jake says the song is powerful enough to bring a tear to your eye. I wish we had a song like that back home.
At two thirty, the boys start think to call it a night. They all have work in the morning. We leave Stramash and part ways on the street. I grab all of their socials and promise to get in touch.
I want to be these guys’ friend. I hope I am. I offer them a place to crash anytime they visit Toronto or Vancouver. They say to get in touch anytime I’m back in the area. Now I have a reason to.
I go to bed. I buzz — not from the alcohol, of which I’d only had three, but from these four guys which I imagined as an indomitable team taking on the streets of Edinburgh. I wanted to stay, but I knew the next day, or the day after, I must go.
That was only a Monday night for Gilbert, Brodie, Louis, and Jake. For me, it was only Day 4 of my multi-month journey. Here’s to the days to come.
B.F. Greeno, aka
the story was never going to be about the girls