Yesterday was my birthday. Usually, I remember them fairly well, since by design, they only come once a year. I can remember nothing concrete about 6 August 2014. When I cast my mind back to last summer, all I can recall is that I felt hope and nervousness, but was imbued with a sense of purpose. I had an unquellable belief that we might be about to change the world. A belief that fortified my political leanings into unshakeable convictions – a belief that fuelled a hundred debates, countless doorstep dismissals and early morning rises to stand on stalls and leaflet houses in parts of Scotland I didn’t know. It was the summer where we could do anything in the world, if we wanted it enough. It was dizzying, and that self-belief feathered out into every area of my life. It was one truly beautiful moment of my life so far – which made it all the worse when our hope was splintered by that resounding two-lettered rejection, one month later.
Edinburgh, my home, voted no, and I couldn’t bear to look at it. I’d spent the evening watching what I could stomach of the results with a friend, before conceding to take some sleep over sadness. When the morning came, and our democratic fate was sealed in a thousand column inches, I didn’t stick around. I remember crying quietly into his chest, exchanging a few dejected words, before stepping onto Leith Walk to try and make some sense out of it. The hour was early, it was overcast, and the empty streets hung with hurt. I’d previously grown tired of my surroundings, but never before had I felt suffocated by a place. I needed to run away. But how do you run away from your feelings?
I opted instead to skip the city. She and I were not currently on speaking terms, so I packed a small bag, grabbed a snack, and got in the car. Glasgow was out of the question – too many days spent canvassing in tower blocks and too many friends to see in pain. Dundee it was. Yes City, they’d said. Nowhere within driving distance was far enough, but at least we’d have a different backdrop to our dejection. If you’re going to cry in the street, at least do it somewhere where nobody knows your name.
My partner and I sat in silence for the whole journey. There was nothing to say. We were weary from trying. Weary from believing that things could be different. So there we sat, eyes on the road, neither of us daring to needle at the fresh hurt with so much as a syllable. Knowing that almost everyone close to me was going through a similar state of grief was too much to contemplate.
We walked the streets without purpose or direction. Beating down familiar routes from my university days. My route to work. The walk to the library. The backstreet that led to the flat I’d shared with my first love. Everywhere we looked, Yes signs gazed out of windows. The ghosts of a thousand strangers’ dreams. It was too much, so we made our first considered decision, and looped down towards the river. Nothing adds to indulging your own sadness like a body of water to gaze pensively over.
We headed to the rail bridge and stopped for a while. I couldn’t bring myself to talk, so I fixated on the foundations of the old Tay rail bridge, jutting out of the swim like a row of discoloured teeth. I remember the first time I saw them, as a seventeen year old student, discovering their story, and shedding a tear for people whose names or faces I didn’t know. I’d come back down to the water often in those days, when I’d needed a quiet moment. It took almost a year of solitary pilgrimage before my focus shifted to the new bridge. The one that stands proud, and that for so many years has carried people safely on their way; bridge that never would have existed without the failure of the other.
This year, I spent my birthday evening by another one, sitting with my twins, taking in a moment of quiet reverence at the foot of the Forth Rail. We perched on a wall at the edge of the water, where the two metal giants stride across the firth to Edinburgh, watching boats drift by. We ran out on the jetty until its surface dipped beneath the lapping water, and we watched the sunset. As the day disappeared and the lights came on, I noticed the pillars of the new Queensferry crossing – jutting of the water, tall, strong, glowing like enormous torches. I recalled Dundee, but I more importantly, I realised that I could think back a year without sadness. Right in front of me, was progress. Scotland had kept going, bit by bit, even if it wasn’t in the way we’d hoped it would.
I’d have liked to have been part of a bridge. Part of something solid that took us from what we know to somewhere new. But now, one year on, I’ll take being part of a try. Without failure, we’d never know what needs to change to get it right.