enigmatic No 13
Leith is blessed to have so many important tributaries flowing through and towards it. The Firth of Forth, Edinburgh’s main river, multiple footpaths and cycleways, and the road from the city to the sea. Two further forces have flowed through Leith in recent years. Namely, the unsightly escarpment formed by the tramworks and the equally powerful and unyielding wave of hipsterisation. The latter has turned shops and eateries various shades of olive green and grey, the coffee artisanal, and the dough sour.
However, nothing passes through Leith quite like the deeply enigmatic number 13 bus. Run by Edinburgh Coach Lines, the 13 intrigues and mesmerises. Its unremarkable appearance allows it to hide in plain sight. No other buses pass through Leith with such apparent disdain, failing to pay homage to Edinburgh’s liveliest area. It’s gone before you know it.
Slicing through backstreets, the 13 is only familiar to ‘those in the know’. Only they are aware that this bus craftily connects a range of disparate locations in the city. Arriving out of the blue, it can take art lovers from the Dalmeny Drill Hall to the Gallery of Modern Art. It connects Easter Road with posh golf courses at Ravelston and Murrayfield (as well as their municipal twin at Craigentinny). Nobody expects the 13; especially when it cuts through elegant New Town streets appearing without warning, endangering red trousered gentlemen and svelte brunching couples.
Only if you plot its stops on a map does the eccentricity of the 13’s route reveal itself. I imagine the route planners feverishly trying to cobble something together in a pub snug as last orders were called and the deadline loomed. The smudged hieroglyphics on the back of a soggy beer mat would have been almost impossible to discern the next morning.
The bare facts are that 13 has 53 stops and the total trip duration for this route is approximately 52 minutes. The first stop on its route is Craigleith Retail Park and the last is Findlay Gardens, Restalrig. This doesn’t tell the half of it.
So often did I encounter the bus on y lockdown wanders that I started to feel that it was stalking me. On one occasion, I was caught unawares and it nearly gobbled me up. I had hoped that taking a trip on the 13 would demystify it, sadly not, It only served to emphasise its deep eccentricity. The 13 has now become firmly lodged in my subconscious and has begun to appear in my dreams.
As society disintegrates all around it, the 13 will keep running - albeit to a reduced timetable. I foresee the NEM (North Edinburgh Militia) using it to shuttle ‘ammo’ across town to the Drill Hall on Dalmeny Street. At the same time the Red Cross desperately try to commandeer it to ferry the stricken to the makeshift field hospital in Pilrig Park.
Their Annandale Street HQ having been ‘taken out’ by drone strikes, Lothian Buses are reduced to a skeleton service. Riddled with bullet holes and its tyres patched up, the 13 perseveres; just. The fleet only keeps going through cannibalisation - the emaciated passengers are nearing a similar stage.
As the tarmac crumbles, the 13 rumbles on. The bedraggled passengers huddle inside, nervously looking out through the shuttered windows, breathing falteringly through their gas masks. Packs of wild dogs terrorise those waiting at the erratically electrified bus shelters.
In Ravelston, carnivorous escapees from the zoo add to the beastly threat; the big cats enjoy postprandial naps in the glades of Ravelston Woods.
As the end of the world looms, the 13 will take the final human inhabitants of Earth to their space shuttle. Those last men and women will, for a few seconds, catch a glimpse of the bus as it rumbles rustily over barren, featureless desert, taking a turn down what once was Rodney Street towards the remnants of the Water of Leith, now shrunk to a pathetic trickle. The shuttle passengers’ final view will be of the 13 trundling through a once vibrant Leith reduced to rubble with smoke billowing from the last coffee roastery.
Millions of years from now, those exploring this benighted planet will land their sleek craft near the ruins of a 13 bus. An old parchment detailing the 13’s route will be scrutinised. It will, after months of laborious research, be determined that those who designed such a route must have been members of a very strange and illogical species.
As a homage to their extinct predecessors, the 13’s route will be recreated by the new Earthers. The route will become a pilgrimage taken by all those reaching maturity; the 13’s unexplained turns and fickleness will be seen as optimal preparation for adulthood.
From Restalrig, the pilgrims will head west towards the great shrine at Craigleith, which archaeologists determine was a place of great significance in days of yore. The new Earthers will eventually construct buses of a similar design and dimensions to the original. Fuelled by solar energy, the 13 will make its way through a city reborn.
An unextinguished reminder of another age. ■
Charlie Ellis writes on culture, education, sport, and politics. He thanks members of the SICK Writing Group for their comments on an earlier draft of this piece.