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Alec dumped his rucksack on the bench that ran down the centre of the launderette and went to the detergent machine. He knew it was cheaper to bring his own but it was one of those things he never got round to. The small packet dropped. As he turned back he saw her pulling the clothes out of his bag.
“Hey, what are you doing? Those are my things!”
She looked up. A red-headed woman with streaks of grey hair escaping from a loosely held bun. She was wearing a cheap green and pink tracksuit. Her reddened hands were sifting through his clothes. He reached out to stop her but she brushed him away firmly.
“Dinnae ye worry now. It’s nae job fer a wee lad like yersel’. Off now an’ hae yersel’ a pint. Go on noo. Don’t stand theer gawkin’.”
The woman smiled and began loading his clothes into two machines, separating whites from coloureds. She fed in coins and the wash cycles started. Alec stood, fidgeting with his feet, putting his hands in and out of his pockets. He took out some pound coins.
“Come back in two hours and they’ll be ready. Stop shufflin’ aroon’ like a wee numpty. An’ keep yer change, laddie. It looks like ye can ill spare it.”
Alec reluctantly backed towards the door and headed up towards Grassmarket. In The Last Drop he nursed a pint of lager and checked his phone. A text from James, Facebook messages from Zaynab and Lindsay and a voicemail from a number he didn’t recognise.
He played it. A woman’s voice, seductive with an Aberdonian accent: I’m sair missin’ ye, Alec. Is it nae time ye came back tae me?
Shit. Why did they do that. Find out your name and use an accent from your home town. It was all a bloody algorithm, he knew that, but it could still give you a turn as his mother would say. He scrolled back through his texts. A week since she’d contacted him. Alec hoped his mother was all right. She kept up appearances behind the bar but it hadn’t been easy since Jeannie. Since Jeannie and then Dad’s disappearance from the scene.
Cowardly bastard. Alec could find no tenderness in his heart towards his father. Accidental death the verdict had been, the oil company saw to that, but Greg McGovern knew his way around the rigs and what sober, careful engineer falls off a viewing platform?
The headache that had niggled for two days began to beat at his left temple.
Get a grip, he told himself and began rehearsing his routine. He had a fifteen-minute slot at the Fringe and needed this breakthrough. He’d finish his degree to please his mother but Business Studies was not for him. No, he’d rather slit his throat with a rusty knife. In fact that was the gist of his stand-up set – talented malcontent wanting to escape the drudgery of capitalism. Not original but he thought he could put a twist on it.
He drained his pint, rubbed his temple which still throbbed, though less insistently now, and went back to the launderette half expecting his things to be gone. But no, the place was empty, the clothes neatly folded and his bag packed. Coming out, he thought he caught the flash of a green and pink tracksuit.
“Thank you,” he shouted, but she was gone.
At work the next afternoon he put on his costume – loose cotton shirt, scratchy wool trousers and waistcoat. He set the cap at what they call a jaunty angle and smiled at the mirror. Underneath the period fabrics freshly laundered boxers, socks and tee shirt felt cool against his skin. He went up to the shop to wait for his group – just the one this afternoon as he was on the late shift.
Who would he be today? He had, of course, like all guides, been given a character and script but Alec liked to ring the changes, inventing new inhabitants with different lives and, even better, different gory deaths. There was Martin Black, the melancholic blacksmith who had died of the plague, walled in by his family. And Geordie Lund the butcher who had sawn off his own left arm for a bet, then taken his cleaver to the treacherous neighbour who refused to pay up. A favourite was Jackie Johnson. Alec relished telling squeamish tourists how he had drowned face down in the sewer, too inebriated to notice that he was inhaling excrement. Or perhaps he could be Rab Gibbons, the part-time hangman?
They were approaching now, an Irish school party with an elderly male and a younger woman teacher. The man introduced himself, "Christopher Quinn, and this is Bernie Mahon.” The young woman held out her hand.
“Saint Catherine’s College, County Galway,” the man added.
Alec took the tickets, counted the number of pupils – sixteen – and beckoned them through the low doorway. He went into his routine.
“Noo mind yer heids, an’ keep thegither. I lost a wee lassie the other day, ye ken.” He looked searchingly at a timid looking girl but she held his gaze. Alec smiled. “And here we are in Mary King’s Close. Under the City of Edinburgh where hundreds of families lived… and died.” He was hitting his stride, hamming it up for the kids, when the elderly teacher interrupted.
“And who might you be, Sir. I understand all you guides have the name of someone who lived here at one time.”
“You understand right, Sir. My name is… my name is… is Alexander McGovern.”
“And would you tell us something about yourself, Alexander?”
“I… I was a clerk, yes that’s right, a lawyer’s clerk. I lived with my widowed mother, Margaret, who was… who kept an ale house and… and with my twin sister, Jeannie, who … well, who left… who left us.”
“How did you die then?” from a thickset lad with cropped hair.
“All in good time, young man. Now come in here. You may have heard the tragic story of wee Annie, whose ghost is said to haunt this very room. Come. Come closer. See that pile of rags in the corner.”
Alec flashed his torch round the room and some girls screamed.
“Yes, look closer. It’s a heap of dolls. People leave them here to comfort wee Annie. See there, a little Welsh girl in costume with the tall hat. And here’s a Barbie dressed for a prom. Don’t know what Annie would make of that. Oh, an’ we’ve got an Upsie Daisy and a Peppa Pig new since yesterday.”
“Alexander – or do your friends call you Alec?’ began the older teacher.
“Yes… er yes, they do.” Alec felt uncomfortable and longed to escape into the skin of Geordie, Rab or Jackie Johnson. His head began to ache again and he felt dizzy but forced himself to say something.
“You’re all from Ireland, right?”
“From Galway,” said the young woman.
“Now is it true that you have something in Ireland called the banshee?”
A few heads nodded.
“Would you tell me a little about the banshee?”
“She comes screamin’ roun’ the house the night you’re goin’ to die!” from a wee lad with buzz-cut red hair and freckles.
“Me auntie May saw her the night me uncle Kevin died. She were a right old woman in a shawl,” a girl chipped in.
“That’ll a’ bin yer da dressin’ up in yer ma’s clothes agin, Mo,” from the thickset lad.
“Hush now and listen.” The younger teacher glared at them all.
“Well now,” began Alec. “That’s the banshee for ye but I’ll bet ye’ve never heard tell of the Bean-Nighe, now, have ye?”
“The Bean what?”
“The Bean-Nighe. She’s an old woman. Some say she’s spare as a picked corpse with skin like cobwebs. Others say she has webbed feet and breasts so large she has to throw them over her shoulders…”
“That’s the dead spit o’ me Auntie Vera!”
Alec paused, practising his timing until they were all silent and looking at him.
“But whatever she looks like, all accounts are agreed on one thing. If you see her washing clothes in the river it’s a sign. It’s said the clothes she’s washing…” he paused again, “belong to someone who is about to die.”
There were a few gasps. Some boys put their hands in their pockets and tried to look unimpressed.
“The water ran down there.” Alec pointed to the bottom of a street. “It was filthy from the sewage. There was cholera, typhoid and dysentery. But especially during the plague years the Bean Nighe would have been a very busy woman.”
With mention of the plague Alec fell back into his script but the headache was getting worse. Paracetamol and bed as soon as he got home, he thought.
Back in the gift shop he left the kids poking the life-size plague doctor’s beak and leather suit.
“Thank you Alec,” said Christopher Quinn. “That was very informative. Should we fill in an evaluation form?”
Alec directed them towards the counter and went to get changed.
He took off his waistcoat and felt in his trouser pocket. Damn. He’d left the torch in Annie’s room. He’d have to go back. Outside it was already dark and the last group would be nearly done by now. He slipped back through the low doorway and made his way down the narrow, atmospherically lit passages. The voice of the other guide – Marie, he thought – echoed through the tunnelled rooms then faded.
Alec felt sweat chill on his chest and armpits. It was as though… yes, as though his underclothes had not been properly aired and the damp still lay in them as his Granny used to say, telling him of the warnings she had been brought up with. Thoughts of the plague victims, fleas nestling in their unwashed shirts and shifts swam in his head. He needed to get home to bed. And then the lights faded. He would have to be quick before they locked up.
As he felt his way into Annie’s room and over to the corner with the dolls, he touched the ledge and something clattered on stone. The torch. Shit. He hoped it wasn’t broken.
But when he pressed the switch an arc of light fell across the heap of dolls. There they all were. Welsh girl, Barbie, Upsie Daisy, Peppa Pig. And was that a new one? Hunched with its back to him, it sat a little to one side. Curious, he nudged it with his foot and turned it to face him. The face was hooded and two bony hands wrung out a grey cloth dripping with moisture. He shuddered but eased back the hood with the toe of his trainer. From a pale oval face his own eyes stared back.
Alec slumped to the floor and felt the damp of the walls seep through his skin, and a chill from the newly laundered clothes that could not keep him dry. The pain in his head increased and the walls rippled, converging, then expanded before closing in more intensely. The pain was unbearable and exploded in bright sparks of light as though a firework had gone off in his brain. The doll’s eyes held his.
“Jeannie? Did they hurt you? Where did they take you? Talk to me, Jeannie.” The voice came as if disembodied and darkness swallowed the sparking lights.
Theresa has had poetry published in several magazines and won the 1917 Huddersfield Literature Festival poetry competition and the 2020 Cannon Poets' Sonnet or Not. She also writes short stories, plays and dramatic monologues.
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