1. Holburn Junction
8.45 am at Holburn Junction, and the commuters in their motorcars stretch as far as perspective allows, gridlocked at the nexus-choice split-the-wind - Highland or Deeside? All the way from the Y-shaped fork junction to the right-turn to Royal Deeside at Great Western Road, the carriageway is bumper-bound stuck-still jammed with metal machines. One each to their cars - behind their windscreens, strapped to their chairs - the grim-faced commuters look as if they have just been bereaved, or have suffered some other form of intolerable injustice. But the pavements are empty and I am nearly alone as I walk towards the town centre. There is an unaccustomed hush; the usual speeding noise of the motorcars is temporarily stilled by the gridlock, the purring susurration of the idling engines is all I can hear. I feel like I am the last human being in a world of mechanisms.
Now I'm closer to the junction itself, and I can see the cause of the traffic jam. A bus-lane parker flashes his hazard lights (why?) as he just pops for a minute to an ATM or something, and in doing so renders the whole half-mile of bus lane worthless. A near-empty bus lurches out from the lane to pass the parked car, insisting its way into the stream of private motorists who do not want, oh they so do not want, to let it out. Staring straight ahead, they psychologically blank out the bus, trying to inch forward and deny it roadspace. The motor-bound expressions of the car-commuters change; the customary displays of glum ennui mutating to intolerant masks of fuming rage, indignant. Compounding their anger, the phasing of the Holburn Junction traffic lights has been changed since last I walked this way - it's a high frequency short phase now. Perhaps this is part of a traffic-management policy to discourage motorists from driving into the heart of the town centre, I don't know. One thing I do know - one thing which is plain to see - is that it has had effect on the driving style of the motorists as they approach accelerating towards the junction (not slowing down, as they should) and crashing on through the light controlled junction at amber, then red; two, three, five vehicles through at red, dropping a gear and flooring it, roaring over the junction as the pedestrian's green man shines out across the junction, beep-beep-beeping to no-one but me. It used to be that the green man meant it was safe to cross - but not now, not in this town. So the short-phasing of the traffic lights has had an effect on my behaviour too, because now I have to cross warily and looking and listening all around, as if there were no green-man pedestrian phase at all.
Keen to study the habits of the commuting motorists, I go into the Starbucks coffee shop which has a picture window panorama of the junction. Sipping away on my americano, the repetitive spectacle of the red-light-jumpers soon pales. This town has an intractable traffic problem, along with the attendant externalities of pollution, dirt, noise, dust, ill-health and on and on. The traffic problem persists despite strategically placed park-and-ride facilities on the periphery of the town (the extensive carparks and shuttle buses remain stubbornly empty), despite high fuel prices ("high oil prices are GOOD for Aberdeen"), despite a "cycling action plan" and despite the new urbanism which is sweeping the developed world's towns, recognising that town centres are places for people, not machines. Despite all these things, traffic volumes in Aberdeen continue to rise; 20% up in the last 3 years, apparently. It starts to snow outside.
I go up to the counter and select a panini-thing. The twenty-something girl barista has an American accent and an over-pleasant, so-familiar-it's-nearly-flirtatious manner. But something in her eyes tells me it's from a script which she repeats over and over and over through her shift. She sing-song-says she'll bring my sandwich over once she's toasted it. I go back to my seat in the window and start to leaf through a magazine. I can't concentrate and my attention wanders. I scan the coffeeshop and its patrons. The place and the people remind me of something, but I can't quite put my finger on it. Not quite deja-vu - more a similarity of category. It eludes me.
Several suited and booted young salesey types, (I'll bet it says "Sales Executive" on their business cards). Sitting each one alone, one by one they lever open their laptops and check their e-mail. And there elderly couple conversing animatedly in sign-language appear to have come in just to get out of the snow, which has now turned into a pathetically damp sleet. Another anodyne group of be-suited folk arrive and settle in for what, amazingly, appears to be a full-blown meeting - something in their manner, their clothing, their pens and pads, makes me think they're lawyers or accountants or surveyors or suchlike. The most junior of them is taking minutes and making sure that everyone got the coffee they wanted. I notice that the deaf couple haven't bought anything, and they're sitting propped on the arms of sofas near the front of the cafe. Their BSL discussion becomes more and more animated - they're silently arguing. Not wanting to intrude on private grief, I look away. A squat casually-dressed woman with scaped-back hair; she's wearing trainers and has both a small rucksack and a big holdall. She holds her mug in one fist and pours over a thick soft old novel which she keeps open with a beefy forearm. A tall slender middle-aged man in active-looking beige clothing (he looks like a geography teacher - the sort who takes his guitar on field-trips) guddles in his tote-bag and confounds my preconceptions by fishing out a copy of The Sun tabloid. By now, the deaf couple have reached an impasse in their squabble and they sit, not looking at each other, arms crossed, chins jutted, brows knitted.
My sandwich arrives, and I notice that the sleet has stopped. Aching-blue between the parting clouds, the sky shoots a barrage of winter-low golden sunlight to glance off the slick wet tarmac and paving stones, up into my face. Blue sky and golden light in our february-grey town - a delight. Wish I'd brought my sunglasses. And with that thought I recognise what the place reminded me of - it's an airport departure lounge, it's a hotel foyer, it's a nowhere un-destination - where we go while we're waiting to go somewhere else. When we want to go somewhere else.