First Chapter: Seventeen Coffins by Philip Caveney

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Tom went down the last few steps and followed the party of tourists through a gloomy entrance. He found himself standing, once again, on Mary King’s Close. He looked expectantly around. It was just as he remembered it: the steeply sloping street, the lines of filthy washing hanging overhead, the rough plastered walls rearing up to the concrete roof high above him. He felt, more than anything else, a sharp jolt of disappointment. He wasn’t sure what he’d expected to find down here. Something more than just a seventeenth century street.

‘So this is the place you’ve been so mad to visit?’ said Mum. ‘I can see why. It’s very atmospheric.’

He nodded, but didn’t reply. When he’d agreed to spend part of his summer holidays in Edinburgh with Mum and Hamish, it had always been in his mind that he’d pay this place a second visit. He was looking for something here, but he wasn’t sure yet exactly what it was.

‘I must say I’m surprised you wanted to come back,’ continued Mum. ‘After the accident, I would have thought you’d want to stay well away. What is it about this place that attracts you?’
Tom frowned. He couldn’t really explain everything to her. How would it sound?

‘Well, Mum, see, the last time I was here, it was like, 1645? There was bubonic plague in the close and I was apprenticed to a guy who wore a mask and called himself Doctor Rae . . . only he wasn’t the real Doctor Rae, he was this crook called William McSweeny . . .’

Yeah, that’d go down well. He pictured Mum edging nervously away from him, looking for the nearest exit. And it wasn’t even as if he could show her the photograph that used to be on his mobile, the photograph of a girl called Morag. In the picture, she’d been sitting at the table in Missie Grierson’s filthy kitchen, smiling up at him and asking him what he was doing, because there were no such things as phones in 1645 and the idea of a photograph was something she could never have understood. A miniature, she’d called it, and remarked how you couldn’t even see the brush strokes. Thinking about it now seemed somehow ridiculous and yet, the photograph had been there on his mobile when he woke up in the hospital. It was the last thing he remembered looking at before he dropped back into a dreamless sleep. But when he’d awoken and looked again, the picture had already started to fade, and it had continued to do so, a little more each time he’d looked, until finally, after a few days, all that remained of Morag was a pale grey rectangle.

The photograph had faded but the memory of her was still fresh in his mind and he’d thought that maybe if he came back here, he might somehow be able to get near to her again, might be able to say sorry for not looking after her well enough.

‘You’re probably wondering what this place is,’ said a voice and looking up, Tom saw that Agnes Chambers had taken up her position, smiling at the group of thirty or so tourists in front of her. ‘What we’re looking at here are the streets of the old city under the Royal Mile, just as they would have looked in the 1600s.’ It was a different Agnes Chambers than Tom remembered, though the maid’s costume was exactly the same and so was the script.

‘I wonder if they’ve got any jobs going here?’ muttered Mum. ‘I could easily do what she’s doing.’

Tom refrained from pointing out that the girl playing Agnes was in her early twenties and probably had some acting experience to go with it. He knew only too well that Mum was on the lookout for work. Judging by the strained atmosphere at Hamish’s house over the past few days, Tom reckoned that things weren’t working out too well for Mum and Hamish.

‘Now we’ll go and visit the houses of some of the people who lived here in the 1600s,’ announced Agnes.

She led the group down the hill and through the doorway of a chamber where a realistic-looking waxwork effigy of a masked man, Dr Rae, was bent over the figure of a child in a bed, inspecting the symptoms of bubonic plague. Several of the tourists gave gasps of revulsion, but Tom could have assured them that this was nothing like as bad as the real thing.

‘He looks a real charmer,’ muttered Mum.

‘Yeah, he was,’ agreed Tom and then realised that Mum was giving him an odd look. ‘I . . . read about him at school,’ he added. ‘We did a project.’

‘A project about Edinburgh? In Manchester?’

‘Er . . . sure, why not? Edinburgh’s cool.’

There were some shushing sounds from the other tourists, so they fell silent while Agnes talked them through the symptoms of bubonic plague and explained how the Doctor would slice open the red swellings with a razor, squeeze out the pus and then cauterise the wounds with a red hot poker. Mum’s face was a picture as she said this. Tom found himself thinking that what Agnes couldn’t describe, or even know about, was the awful smell of burning flesh that filled the room at such a time.

He was glad when this part of the tour was over and Agnes led them on, along narrow corridors to the doorway of the room he’d most wanted to visit on this trip.

‘We call this little Annie’s room,’ said Agnes, and Tom wanted to interrupt and tell her: No, you got that bit wrong. This is Morag’s room. It’s her ghost that haunts this spot because it’s near where she died, murdered by William McSweeny, the man who died after falling through a roof. A man that I killed with my own hands . . . But Tom knew if he said anything about any of it, the whole party would look at him as if he were mad, so he held his tongue and followed the queue of people into the little room.

He steeled himself, expecting . . . what? That a cold hand would reach out and touch him? That he’d see Morag’s flickering image standing in a corner, gazing up at him with the same affection she’d shown him in life? That he would hear her voice speaking to him across the distance of time?

But no, once again he was disappointed. There was just the little room, the open wooden chest and a great mound of bedraggled dolls and cuddly toys, left there by an endless procession of tourists. Mum gazed down at the offerings with a look of faint disgust on her face.

‘That lot looks like it could do with a good wash,’ she said and any spell that might have existed down there, was completely broken.

‘Come on,’ said Tom, turning away. ‘I’ve seen enough.’ He led Mum towards the door, pushing past the other tourists. Mum followed, mystified.

‘I don’t understand,’ she said. ‘You nagged me for days to bring you here and it’s really interesting . . .’

‘It’s not what I expected,’ he said, not looking back at her. ‘It’s . . . different than I remember. Let’s find the way out.’

‘Shouldn’t we wait for the rest of the group?’ asked Mum. ‘We could get lost down here.’

‘I know the way,’ he assured her. ‘It’s just–’

He broke off as he saw something moving at the far end of a long corridor; a tall dark figure clad in a leather cloak. In one gloved hand it carried a lantern which burned with an eerie glow and in the other hand, a long white stick. The hooded head turned to look at them and Tom saw the familiar masked face, the long, crow-like bill. The figure began to move, striding towards them, seeming to float above the hard earth floor. Tom’s heart pounded in his chest like a drum and a terrible coldness settled over him. He grabbed Mum’s arm, squeezing it so hard that she gave a gasp of pain.

‘Tom! What are you–’

He opened his mouth to tell her to run, but nothing came out and when he tried to stir his legs into motion, he found that they could barely hold him upright. The vision swept closer, the goggle-rimmed eyes glaring at Tom as though they had recognised an old friend, looking at him the same way they had examined him when they searched for the right spot to bury the blade of a knife . . . Then the figure was lifting the lantern to illuminate Tom’s face and a muffled voice, with a soft Edinburgh accent, spoke from behind the mask.

‘Can I help you at all?’

‘I . . . I . . .’ Tom struggled to get words out.

‘You seem to have wandered away from the rest of the group,’ said the man and Tom realised with a rush of relief that it was just one of the staff, dressed up in seventeenth-century costume.

‘We were looking for the way out,’ said Mum helpfully. ‘Bit claustrophobic down here.’

There was a deep chuckle from behind the mask which, despite everything, served to send a chill down Tom’s spine.

‘It’s not everyone’s cup of tea.’ The man lifted the lantern. ‘Just follow the corridor there and you’ll see an exit on your left.’ The masked head bowed and the figure moved on its way.

Mum smiled. ‘Wouldn’t fancy his job. Must be hot as anything under that all that gear.’ She looked down at Tom. ‘Are you all right? You’re shaking.’

‘I’m fine,’ he insisted, without much conviction. ‘Come on.’ He led her along the corridor as they’d been directed and pushed through the exit door. Stone steps led them upwards and they emerged into the reassuring light and warmth of the gift shop. A man in a frock coat and knee breeches greeted them at the door. ‘Everything OK?’ he asked them. He gave Mum a sympathetic look. ‘Some people can find the place a bit unnerving.’

‘We just needed some air,’ Tom assured him as he hurried past.

‘Did you want a souvenir?’ Mum asked him, but he kept walking towards the exit.

‘I’ve already got one,’ he assured her.

She caught up with him in the narrow alleyway outside.

‘What is wrong with you?’ she asked him. ‘We were only in there five minutes. I was expecting to make a day of it.’

Tom shrugged. ‘Sorry,’ he said. ‘I just . . . it wasn’t what I was looking for.’

‘But you’ve been here before,’ she reminded him. ‘Surely you must have known what it would be like. So, why . . .?’

Tom stared at his shoes. ‘It’s complicated,’ he said. How could he explain to her what he really felt? That going back to Mary King’s Close had felt somehow like something from his past. Like Timeslyp, the computer game he’d played so avidly only a year ago. Then, it had seemed so exciting. Now, whenever he revisited the game on his mobile phone, it felt somehow irrelevant – because a real trip back in time was so much more immersive; something that affected every sense – sight, sound, even smell. And returning to Mary King’s Close had felt similarly disappointing. The doorway into the past had been well and truly shut. ‘I was just . . . expecting something more,’ he said, at last. Like the first time I went there, he thought.

‘Well . . .’ Mum reached into the pocket of her coat and pulled out a guidebook. ‘There’s lots of other stuff to do in Edinburgh. And I’m not really ready to head back to Fairmilehead just yet.’ She studied the book for a moment, then looked at Tom and smiled. ‘Tell you what,’ she said. ‘How do you feel about the National Museum of Scotland?’

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