Wednesday 26th January 1746
“Thank God that’s the last o’ them lass!” Joseph Marr, proprietor of Lucky Jo’s alehouse announced with a weary smile as he closed the heavy door at the back of the two old men who had finally drained their tankards of ale and shuffled homewards. Reaching up he slid home a thick bolt to secure the door before drawing a great iron key, fully seven inches long, from the deep pocket on the front of his apron, once white, but now a dissolute grey bearing years of beer and other unidentifiable stains, worn over an equally stained combination of long waistcoat and shirt with the sleeves rolled up to reveal forearms of rough hair and pale flesh. The huge key turned with a resolute click, announcing that the door was now firmly closed and would remain so until the clock struck seven in the morning when it would open again to slake the thirst of the farmers, shepherds and stall holders who would fill the great open space of the Grassmarket beyond that locked door.
Joseph’s eyes flicked back and forth from their location in his wide, fleshy face of pasty skin bordered by grey whiskers which never seemed to be of equal length on his drooping jowls below the great round dome of his scalp where thin strands of lank, greying hair lay plastered from one ear over towards the other as though it somehow created the impression he was not as bald as a coot.
“Aye,” he announced with a little chuckle through his red nose, the one splash of colour in his otherwise pallid face. “We managed tae get they auld soaks oot o’ here afore midnight for once! Gi’e their jougs a quick dicht in the pail and then get yersel’ aff hame, lass.”
The object of this instruction nodded happily in reply. Isa Mullen at the age of twenty had several years experience of working long hours at Lucky Jo’s but was now looking forward to her bed. Come the morning she would be back here in this small alehouse cramped with battered tables and chairs set before an equally battered bar above which a badly painted sign promised ‘Finest Wynes and Ails in Edinburgh’ to its clientèle. In reality the ale was no more than passable most of the time and the wine could be used to clean paintbrushes.
Isa tucked a long coil of greasy brown hair which had come loose from below an old fashioned coif behind her ear before dipping the tankards into a pail of dirty water. Shaking the drips away she placed them on a shelf below the bar beside dozens of other clay tankards as she said, “och, auld Norrie and George are nae trouble Mister Jo. Aye, they might hang on like a limpet tae the bar and nurse their beer like a miser clings on tae his last ha’penny, but at least they dinnae want tae fight a’body else. I’d rather ha’e them than some young laddies fu’ of fire and vim that cannae tak’ their drink without wanting a fight!” She shook her head before dismissing the thought. “Well, that’s us all done then” she announced brightly as she straightened her coif which had a habit of slipping to one side every time she moved her head. “I’ll be off home to bed!”
“D’ye want me tae walk ye hame?”
“Och no, not at all Mister Jo. I’ll no’ be five minutes until I’ve got my shoes off and ma poor toes warming themselves in bed, but thank you for the offer though.” She pulled down her short cloak from a wooden peg by the bar and settled it across her shoulders over a plain brown dress with a high neck which she had inherited from her mother. It was years out of fashion but the money and tips she made at work, little enough though that was, was used for food, rent and supporting her parents drinking habits meaning she had nothing left to spend on fripperies such as a dress she would be proud to be seen walking the streets in. Suppressing a small sigh she pushed the thought away and emerged from behind the bar as she moved towards the small door leading to the backyard opening out onto Castle Wynd.
Joseph lumbered across the taproom, pushing chairs into some semblance of order as he did so. “I didnae see yon scratchy fella tonight hanging aboot gi’eing you big coos een. Ye’s havenae had a falling oot ha’e ye?”
Isa bristled slightly at his words. “Zander isnae that bad Mister Jo. He’s a decent young man with good prospects!” she said with a nod of her delicate chin. “And anyway, what woman would want to be wasting her time on a man who spends every night in an alehouse? No, he’ll be busy earning an honest living I think.”
“He’ll be fleecing some poor fool at the cards” laughed Joseph as he opened the door for her. Seeing the annoyed look on her pretty face he gave her a cheeky wink. “Och lass, dinnae take me so seriously. If he makes you happy then I’m happy for you.” Holding the door open to the backyard he said with a kindly smile, “now watch yourself going home. It’s a dark night.”
“I’ll be fine Mister Jo” she replied as her annoyance faded as quickly as it had come. “I’ve walked it when I couldn’t see my hand before my own face! I think I could find my way home with my eyes closed tight.” She blessed him with a last smile and stepped out into the darkness. Her words were no idle boast. She had trod the same route several times a day for the last six years and her feet could now tell exactly where she was from the feel of one uneven cobble over another and the way it pressed against the bottom of her foot through the worn thin sole of her much patched shoes.
* * *
The warm light of the alehouse was snuffed out as Joseph secured the door as she stepped past the barrel half sunk into a pit which served as the latrine for the customers. The stink hung like a solid curtain about it as she quickly scurried past with her breath held until she stepped out from the small yard and onto Castle Wynd which was cast in near total darkness. Turning to her left she walked away from the Grassmarket as the narrow alley climbed steeply up Castle Hill. After less than a minutes brisk walking she turned to her right where a slightly wider path ran along the back of the tenements on the north side of the Grassmarket. High walls, closed shops and occasional puddles of light, which spilled from upper windows onto the dirty cobbles lay before her on her right hand, while the darkness of the steeply sloped allotments and small orchards below the high tenements on Castle Hill lay to her left. As she walked forward the sudden sound of an animal scampering through the allotments made her jump in alarm but she was able to laugh quietly to herself as she shook her head. “Away home, Mister Fox, afore someone sets their dog on you!” she warned with a smile into the dark.
Still smiling at the fright the fox had given her she walked forward along the lane illuminated fitfully by the moon gazing down benignly through the scudding clouds. Her thoughts turned towards what her parents may have left her to eat. If they were drunk there was a chance they would have left some of the food she had bought earlier that day for her to make herself some supper, if not then she would need to go to bed hungry again. It wouldn’t be the first time and she knew it wouldn’t be the last. A small mean part of her mind told her that she should have abandoned them long ago and found a small room of her own which would give her the chance to save some money rather than lose it day after day as every penny she had spare went on booze for her parents. She refused to listen to such thoughts. They may be woeful parents but she felt it was her responsibility to look after them and was why she forced herself to smile when she got home, time after time to a cold house where even the mice in the skirting board went hungry. Perhaps if she allowed herself to dream then Zander McCall could offer her the chance of a better life, but what of her parents then? Her smile faded as she feared that even if she hoped for a romantic future it would come to nothing when her parents would still look to her to provide for them.
Movement before her forced her mind to snap back to the here and now and through the gloom before her she could see a figure standing silently in the shallow recess of a shop doorway. Her eyes watched him carefully as she moved as far across to the other side of the lane as she could as she approached the silent figure. He was wrapped in a great cloak which reached almost to his feet and a tricorned hat was tipped forward over his face.
“Evening” she said firmly as she made to hurry past him trying to sound more confident than she suddenly felt. The man didn’t respond in any way but did lean further back into the small alcove as she passed him.
Releasing a breath she hadn’t even known she was holding she hurried past him and wished she had taken up Joseph on his offer to walk her home. Her feet moved quickly forward and she knew that she was less than a minute from her own door now, but before she knew what was happening the man leapt from the doorway to grab her from behind. His left arm was hooked through the crook of her left elbow and reached across her back to grip her right elbow painfully as he twisted her body and pressed her up against the wall of another closed shop, while his right hand was firmly clamped over her mouth stifling any hope of crying for help.
“Now where are you going my little dove?” he breathed into her ear in a voice of honeyed falseness which reeked of wealth, privilege, but even more so of spices which flavoured his breath almost overpoweringly. “Just relax and all will be over in a moment or two!”
Isa tried desperately to break loose from his grasp but both arms were pinned and with her belly pressed against the wall she could find no leverage to break loose even though terror was lending her every ounce of strength it could find for her.
“Hush, hush little dove” he said. “This won’t hurt.” His hand moved across her face to cover not only her mouth but now pressed her nose closed robbing her of the chance to breathe.
Desperately she fought with every fibre of her being to break the grip on her face as her lungs screamed for air and stars began to explode in her eyes. As the stars twinkled out and darkness settled over her vision, the burning in her chest faded and as consciousness withered, her last thought was hearing his voice from a thousand miles away whisper, “ah, but this reminds of Bruges. And Edinburgh girls are just as easy…”
After that there was only the dark and an endless silence.