Bar/fly: Edinburgh

By Ewan McDonald

Ewan McDonald cops a serve in the Oxford Bar, Detective Inspector Rebus' favourite watering-hole in Edinburgh.

The bar looked closed. Mind you, at two o'clock on a Friday afternoon, the street looked closed.

The swinging sign above the door couldn't be bothered to raise a flap. The solid, black, wooden door was firmly shut. No light behind the frosted windows; no sound from inside.

Big Alister knew better. His Edinburgh rarely shouted welcome. The tiny metal plate screwed into the front door read Push, so he did. It gave way, though it would have been a brave front door that didn't give way to Big Alister when he was of a mind and the lunchtime thirst was upon him.

Wee Mac followed his pal into a bar that was about as big as your Nanny's parlour, assuming your Nanny didn't keep a cat, let alone feel the need to swing it.

Most of the room was taken up with a bar and the requisite bottles and taps. Some 20 men clustered around the serving area and a couple of women huddled on a bench in the corner.

There was a small TV above the necessaries; eyes and minds were fixed on the game playing out a head-and-a-bit above them.

Wee Mac realised it was the Winter Olympics curling final and realised he should give the watchers as much deference as anyone in a black T-shirt during an All Blacks test in the Hillcrest Tavern.

Big Al caught the barmaid's eye. "Two pints of Best," he instructed.

She drew them from the taps. Wee Mac thought about ordering a bite, looked across the bar and saw a bap curling around its ham and cheese. He thought no more about food.

Big Al paid the barmaid and headed up the couple of steps towards the side room, where they had more chance of a chat. Wee Mac picked up the glass in front of him and followed.

Before he had taken two steps, a growl from the bar curdled his innards like a Highlander's sword thrust.

"Oi. You. That's ma beer," said a large, fearsome and clearly non-negotiable Scotsman.

Wee Mac retreated quicker than Bonnie Prince Charlie.

"Sorry," he put the beer back on the scratched wooden bar.

The barmaid moved to intervene, offering Wee Mac his pint of Belhaven Best from the drip tray where the ale was still settling.

"I should have told you this was on the way ..."

The pair left the bar-room and, off the corridor, into a slightly larger side room. It had been painted green sometime in the late 1930s and no one had seen the need to redecorate since. Small knots of men sat around cheap old rickety tables on cheap old rickety spindleback chairs or church pews.

To a man they wore parkas and scarves and muttered into places where their beards might have been if they were not clean-shaven.

Wee Mac and Big Al could not pick up scraps of mutter; these men were used to having their conversation not overheard. They might have been detectives from the nearby police station. They might have been gentlemen with slightly less acquaintance of the niceties of legalities, too. The welcome was as warm as the fire turning to ash in the grate.

Big Al finished his pint and nodded towards the conveniences across the hall.

"I'm away to the jacks," he advised.

Alone, Wee Mac looked around and took in the other solo patron, a man in a winter jacket, beer at hand, scribbling in a notebook.

Big Al nodded towards him as he returned, wiping his hands.

"Another bloody reporter," he gestured.

"They're in here all the time since that twat Rankin started writing those Rebus stories."

Ewan McDonald visited Edinburgh with VisitScotland and Emirates airlines.

- NZ Herald

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