As I heard the first distant strains of music, I now realized I waited to see the Nazi procession, a self-delivered punishment for my inactivity, the first flagellation to atone for my previous misdeeds.
Or more accurately… my lack of deeds.
I stood on the garden side of the wide street looking down the shiny tramlines, my back to high Edinburgh Castle, my eyes unable to deal with the huge Nazi insignia now festooned from its ancient battlements. The shops before me were closed, all of them, their boarded up windows a remembrance of the street fighting of the last week, the threads of resistance, the brave heroes who had fired their guns for a few fleeting moments, then vanished from the streets. I recall sitting in the university buildings, head immersed in some technical book as if the pages could dull my senses to the random shots, the sporadic gunfire of a retreating and broken army.
The shopfronts had been taken by the Germans, their long blood-red banners dripping from high windows, the pristine colors degrading the grey stone even further. The sun reflected from the huge swastikas where proud tattered Union flags had flown just days earlier. Somehow the gaudy Nazi colors greyed the scene, making it monochrome before a picture was ever taken; the red banners leaching whatever color remained in the stone, leaving them sterile.
I knew I would never shop on Princes Street again; the appeal had been torn away, replaced by a reminder of my own complicity in my country’s defeat. I could picture a line of new cafés, offering the conquering heroes a view of their newest conquest, as they had done in Paris, just four months previously.
When the marching band approached, I resisted the urge to run from my vantage point, to escape the final ignominy of my own personal surrender. I looked around; there was no wide-armed blue-uniformed policemen ushering eager children from the streets. My fellow Edinburgh residents stood sullenly on the pavements with no urge to see the band before they approached. We accepted its looming advance, yet perhaps hoped it would never arrive.
My skin crawled against the shifting of familiarity, the dichotomy of sounds, the basic longing for a memory which had been snatched from me, replaced by this alien presence. Considering how many times I’d stood as a child, as a teenager, my heart racing, my mind dancing with the sounds of the oncoming pipe band. I’d felt giddy and excited, my core lifted by the Scottish-ness of it all.
In precisely that moment, as I stood immobile like a deer caught in headlights, the full comprehension of surrender jarred me like a hammer blow. Today I would witness no Scottish parade. This would be no celebration of our traditions, paraded in front of me like some elaborate people’s opera… no familiar high skirl of pipes, no chanter drone, no rousing tunes of war.
This procession was not an Edinburgh Festival March.
My head reluctantly turned; the need to assuage my curiosity overcoming my reticence to acknowledge the passing of an era.
In the brilliant sunshine that only northern climes can provide, an immaculately uniformed grey drum major marched in front, a red sash across his chest, but there any similarity with old memories ended. The helmet of this new leader was polished silvery grey; his weird manic goosestep looked awkward and staccato compared to the confident swish and swagger of tartan we were familiar with. The brass band behind him played strange tunes which seemed to hurt my ears, and I grimaced in recoil. I sensed we all did.
The bass drone of the pipes was gone, replaced by the low gears of the tanks following the band, their tracks making a crunching sound against the tarmac street and tramlines. I felt the growing vibration in my very soul; it was the grinding of our freedom, the destruction of our way of life. As the first tanks passed me, I sensed the pulverization of the history of my people under their screeching tracks.
Heads and shoulders of dark men thrust forth from their mechanical insides, looking around in wonder, ignoring us, the people out to see them. They gazed at the high castle shining in the bright sunshine behind me, their expressions confident, proud.
The expressions of victors.
Then armored cars and unfamiliar vehicles filled with gaudily dressed officers. Fancy grey uniforms filled with oppressive men with veneer smiles, looking past me, looking at the symbol of their victory, the battlements of once proud Edinburgh Castle.
As goose-stepping grey men marched behind the armored cars, I turned away, pushing politely past the thin line of onlookers, past the tall red Nazi banners tied to the railings of Princes Street Gardens. I looked for the nearest opening to retreat down into the gardens, but they were locked, guarded by German soldiers. Resisting the overwhelming desire to run, I casually walked against the direction of the parade, my eyes fixed on the paving stones in front of me, not wanting to catch the eye of the soldiers lining the railings. I was desperate to get away from Princes Street; at that moment I would have hopped on a tramcar to the moon.
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