Behind one wall of my flat is a labyrinth of passages and rooms, sealed away from the public.
Table of Contents
Chapter 1: The Door Marked with an “X”
Chapter 1: The Door Marked with an “X”
It was a knock at my door. Or, more like a loud and angry rap at it. Groggy, I rolled over in bed and went fumbling for my phone.
Half three. I groaned again, my head already pounding, and hauled my arse out of bed.
My flat was newly painted – as in, I’d still been able to smell the paint when I’d moved in about ten days ago. It was either the fact that there was a thick layer of paint on the door or, simply, how old the door was, that made it stick. It had no peephole, so I yanked the door from the jam and peered out through the gap with a grumpy, ‘Yeah?’
No one responded. I dug two fists into my eyes, took a moment to recognise I’d gone too hard at the pub last night, and then blinked them open again.
The landing outside was empty. Drawing a miffed breath, I unlatched the security chain and stuck my head out.
The steps up to my first floor flat are housed in a narrow stairwell, walls whitewashed and industrial flooring that was definitely part of a renovation in about the 80s. The tenement house was built over two hundred years ago, in grey stone, stood a solid seven storeys high, and had a ground floor door so low even as a moderately-tall woman I had to duck to get through it. So the 80s remodel was actually pretty modern.
My only light was from a streetlamp that shone through a multi-paned window, but it was enough to see the stairwell was empty. I took a step into the doorway and peered up one flight of stairs, then down the other, listening.
It was silent now, not even the sounds or sights of some drunk student plodding up to their flat. I retreated with an irritated curse and shut my door.
Never mind the fact that I was, at present, a drunk student, I had irritation aplenty to spare for whatever other drunk student had decided to wake me up. I stalked over to the kitchenette shoehorned into the side of my one-room flat and went searching for some Panadol. Better take it now, I figured, along with a good litre of water, and maybe I’d wake up for classes without a headache.
Still relatively warm as the last vestiges of an Edinburgh summer dwindled, I’d left my windows open. I could hear the 3am traffic on South Bridge. It’s not surprising that I could. Technically, my flat is on South Bridge. In fact, if I went up two floors there was a door that led straight onto the bridge. Going through that door is a bit of a discombobulation: it’s two storeys above my first floor flat, but it looks like you just appeared on a very normal ground-level street, lined on either side with shops.
The way my tenement is built – along with every other building on either side of the bridge – is right up against South Bridge, which cuts through the Cowgate valley. One wall of my flat, in fact, hides the underside of the bridge. Looking out the window on the other side shows a view of the narrow cobble street below. I’d already noticed that being up against the bridge leaves some problems with damp, a section of the wall beside my bed looking water damaged despite the new paint, but I wasn’t complaining. Affordable housing – relatively speaking – close to the University of Edinburgh had been in short supply when I went looking, and my freshly-painted one room flat, sparsely furnished as it still was, had been a boon to find so close to the start of term.
My head still throbbing and attempting to gulp down water despite an overactive gag reflex, I dumped myself back on my bed. I certainly wasn’t terribly alert, but I probably wouldn’t be able to fall back asleep until the Panadol kicked in. So I just sat, in my Spartan flat lit by streetlight through a lace-screened window, the picture of freedom in fresh adulthood.
My eyes had sunk shut, water glass dumped on bedside table, when I heard a thump, then a scuffle. Then another thump. I humphed. That was probably what had woken me up, then. I’d thought it was a knock at the door, but it was probably just Mrs Whosit-Whatsit (I’d yet to learn her name) from the floor above. A large and elderly woman who struggled badly with the stairs – and was not terribly charitable to young students living near her – I’d heard her moving around above my ceiling often enough. Not normally at three in the morning, mind, but she could be pretty loud when she thumped about with her walking stick.
It didn’t make me like her any better right then, but she went quiet after that and I eventually fell back asleep.
That night became a blip in my recollection, my new normal carrying on: making new friends, going to classes, and attempting to find enthusiasm for cooking for one on a strict budget in a tiny kitchenette with only one hot plate. I saw Mrs Whosit-Whatsit a few times, and, once, even helped her carry her bag of microwave dinners down from the door off South Bridge (she didn’t thank me).
The next time I was awake in the early hours of the morning, I wasn’t as much drunk as sipping a frustrated beer while trying to finish a paper before its morning due date. I had nightcore playing through my headphones, so it was only after I’d submitted the paper and killed my music for bed that I heard shuffling.
I didn’t think anything of it initially, assuming it was just Mrs Whosit trying to get to the loo. I got into bed, shut my eyes, and started to drift off.
It wasn’t a knock on the door, this time, as much as a stumble against it, that had me jerking back from that cushy descent into sleep. I sat up, listening. Because, this time, unburdened by a drunken miasma, I noticed it wasn’t my front door the sound had come from.
My flat has only two doors. The front door and the bathroom door. Both are on the street-side of my flat. The sound wasn’t coming from that side.
I stared over at the cupboard against the wall opposite. I’d say the cupboard was “built-in”, except that it is more like “pushed-in”. Floor to a foot off the ceiling, and fronted by a mirrored sliding door, the cupboard is essentially a chipboard-and-veneer box stuck into the corner.
It had gone quiet over there, but, a moment later, a muted sound came from above my head. Not right above, where Mrs Whosit lived, but by the top of the wall – as though just on the other side of it. I listened hard, my eyes fixed to the fresh coat of white paint. It was like something rubbing against stone – maybe like wood scraping the other side of the wall. Then that too stopped.
The other side of that wall is the space under the bridge. When I’d told a classmate about where I lived, I’d been treated to a giddy story about the catacombs under South Bridge. My classmate wasn’t wrong, of course. Just walking to the street door downstairs I passed by signs proclaiming ghost tours in the labyrinth of passages and rooms under the bridge. The Edinburgh Vaults do exist, created like an underground city into the arches below South Bridge and sealed off from outside by the tall buildings, like my tenement, built up on either side of it.
Constructed in the late 1700s, South Bridge had been designed with multiple floors of storage rooms and workshops and whatever else built underneath it. It would be a cool idea, to have industry right there in the otherwise unused space below the bridge, if they’d done it properly. Instead it leaked and ventilation was terrible. So industry moved out. And the poor moved in. The Edinburgh Vaults, for all they were technically above it, became truly underground: filled with brothels, illegal distilleries, crime, and slum housing. The Vaults were notorious, but overlooked, in their secluded quarters out of sight. No one knows when, but at some point authorities thought it was bad enough, and filled the Vaults in with rubble.
That people had lived in there wasn’t even known in modern times until excavations in the 90s. Today, health and safety has the Vaults closed off except for guided tours and events. And that’s only a portion of the Vaults, not all of them.
Staring at the wall that separated me from that, my imagination had a field day in my dark and solitary bedroom somewhere in the early hours of the morning. I could imagine a bustling underground world lit only by dotted candles, people brushing shoulders with thieves and murderers in cramped corridors, rooms shrouded with brightly-coloured cloth and decorated with seductive giggles, deals being made in dark corners, the bubbling of a whiskey still…
And realised that, way back then, the person who’d slept in my single-room flat would have been right next to that. Of course, I realised a moment later, that person would likely have been one of a family of ten, all stuffed in this single room and probably without my bathroom…
Still, my imagination kept me awake for a while after that – and had me rather in awe of the history built into this stone.
Two days later I had the provision of a Saturday, and woke late to the sounds of drizzle outside my two sash windows. Table and chairs from IKEA: that was my plan for the day. Listening to music, I stuck slot A into hole B – or whatever – and Allan-keyed it all together. Sat on a chair later with a cup of tea, my success had me feeling industrious. My gaze turned to the pushed-in cupboard.
I drained the last of my tea, popped the final half of a Hobnob in my mouth, and went to investigate it. My flat, unlit by pricey electricity, was the grey-blue of a drizzly day, my body casting its shadow on the wall beside the cupboard.
From above me, Mrs Whosit got to her feet with a squeak, shuffle, and clunk. Up from her armchair, I guessed, to shuffle somewhere else. Honestly, I couldn’t complain. I’d been playing music all day. She was just getting up.
I shifted aside, trying to avoid shadowing behind the cupboard, and peered into the gap between it and the wall. In the darkness, I could see only a bit. But I did catch a glimpse of an irregular protrusion behind the cupboard. It made sense. It’d explain why the boxy cupboard wasn’t flush against the wall.
I’d stuffed all my clothes, my cleaning supplies, and bags into the cupboard. It took an hour and another two Hobnobs to pull it all out again, attempting to keep the folded folded and the hung on their hangers as I dumped it all on the bed.
With the clothes gone, the now-visible back of the cupboard was veneer-covered chipboard, like the rest of it. So I got myself positioned, grabbed where I could, and yanked.
It took a lot of wiggle and haul to shift that cupboard, but I got it scraping across the cheap carpet with sheer sweat and an aching back. Tramping around it, I moved to where it had been in the corner.
And stopped, stood before an old wooden door set in a rough-hewn stone frame. It wasn’t tall, more like child height than adult height – more like an entrance into an attic, if your walls were made of stone.
I almost wasn’t surprised. Ways into the Vaults were supposed to be sealed and the public kept out. But there had been a variety of entrances, and my flat wasn’t a public space.
What did surprise me was the large “X” drawn onto the door in red spray paint. And, written over that in the same spray paint, the words “DO NOT ENTER”.
The spray paint had been applied inexpertly. From the letters of the warning, red drips had run, making it look like a horror-attraction’s attempt at creepy writing in blood.
My classmate would love this, I thought as I approached the door. She really would. She’d been very into the entire idea of the Vaults. A secret door into them? She’d lose her marbles, aquiver.
I didn’t. But I did pull the bolt that kept the door shut. The spray-pained X was all the deterrent the door had: the old hammered metal of the bolt shifted aside with my yank.
The door swung inwards, toward me. I dodged it, and was hit with a powerful wave of musty air.
‘Whooo…’ I breathed, my nose wrinkling. ‘How many people died down here?’
It was flippant. And it didn’t smell like death, in all honesty. Just damp, perhaps some rotting wood, and… must – whatever that was. I fetched my phone, tapped on the flashlight, and cast the beam into the dark space beyond.
I could see why the Vaults may be referred to as “catacombs”. Or even “medieval dungeon” would describe it. The door opened a couple feet off the floor below, which probably explained why the doorway was so short. Squatting, I leant through it, looking around with my flashlight.
It was an alcove, the ground and air thick with dust; bits of rocks and, to my left, broken bottles strewing the stone floor. The walls were likewise stone, rough-hewn, the doorway out of the alcove arched.
Fetching a pair of shoes, I pulled them on, and snuck, hunched over, through the doorway. It was a hop to the floor. The bottles, I saw, weren’t ancient. They were old, but forty years ago old. And that made me wonder what sweet parties previous tenants of my flat had held here, before the Vaults were officially excavated.
My growing idea, as I walked through the archway into a corridor, was that my door was far from the only way into these vaults. I could well believe that secret ghost tours or urban explorations occurred down here at night. Through the wall, I may not hear the sniggering of curious people, spooked in the dark, but I would be able to hear them knock on my door, or scrape something against the wall. I couldn’t blame them for exploring. I was doing the same.
Because the Vaults were awesome. Genuinely. I stopped in the corridor, feeling the blackness up against my back, the light from my phone illuminating the empty stone passage before me, making it look like a tunnel surrounded by mystery.
I turned around, demystifying the darkness behind me with my flashlight. That way led to a widening, where very rough staircases offered the opportunities of upstairs and downstairs. I went that way, passing under a broad arch and starting to watch where I put my feet. Like something out of Harry Potter – a lesser-used corner of Gringotts, maybe – the hall of staircases looked like it was made out of rubble; vaulted above, death-trap staircases all around. It could do with blazing torches on the walls, I thought, and then picked one of the staircases that led up, wanting to see what wood could have been scraping against the wall above my bed.
I found a sparse selection by way of objects left behind. I made it up the rubble stairs to an upper floor, and carried along the passageway I found there, looking into room after room off it. There was a bit of something wooden, long since decayed, over there; a bit of cloth, mouldy beyond use, here; a bunch of small vials, like from a long-ago apothecary, in a corner raised with indistinct refuse; what looked like part of a pillow stuffed with blackened straw in a soggy puddle of dust…
The scuttle of a mouse, heard but, though I swung my phone that way, not seen. What food a mouse might find in here… I didn’t want to fathom.
I’d lost sense of where I might be in relation to my flat. The rooms that would border my wall were those to the left of me. Though I looked in every one of them, I saw nothing more than the odd bit of decayed detritus. A piece of something that stood out from the dust and moist yuck caught my eye in a room six down from the hall of stairs. Bracing myself, I picked it up and tried to dust it off with one hand occupied with my phone.
It was a doll. Not a creepy porcelain one, or a more modern one. But one with a face whittled out of wood. It had been sitting in a soggy corner too long. The doll’s dress had been eaten away with rot, leaving the base of it like slick tar. And its face hadn’t been immune to decay. On the left side, it had a carved eye and smile. On the right, it looked like it had been bored into by mould or maggots.
I dropped it, creeped out. I fumbled my phone, for a second left with only my feet illuminated as, all around me, the deep blackness encroached.
I yelped, quietly, though it sounded loud in the silent Vaults. In that moment before I got my phone up and swinging around, I’d had a sense of what it would be like in here – living in here – centuries before.
Not a single window. Just a matrix of passages and rooms. I’d imagined it illuminated by romanticised candles. A single candle or two – all that could be afforded – wouldn’t have this place lit like a movie filmed in the supposed dark. That candle flame would be little more than a small sphere of illumination, surrounded by black. Always. Day and night.
And it would drain the oxygen even more. I’d felt a growing tickle in my throat. Logically, it was the dust, not some harbinger of hypoxia. But it made me worry for my air supply regardless. Made me wonder what ventilation, at all, this place did have.
Many bodies in here, all needing that air. The odd candle, sucking it up. I shuddered, feeling like I was surrounded by those bodies, them everywhere my phone’s flashlight wasn’t pointed. Lurking.
And then I noticed my phone battery. It was down at 6%, one point off pinging me a warning.
There was no way I was taking that risk of it running out. Getting stuck in here without any light – lost in these vaulted stone rooms and passages, feet below the car tyres of unknowing motorists, gave me an indescribable panic.
I headed back the way I came, and had a sigh of relief when I found the hall of staircases again, glad I hadn’t mistakenly gone the wrong way; then another sigh when I saw the faint illumination up ahead in the passage one floor below.
My door was there, leading back into my bright blue-grey room with windows that showed the miserable drizzle outside. It was like a haven I began trotting towards, hellish fancies of my door slamming shut, even as I ran for it, dogging my footsteps until I was leaping up and back through that hole, then slamming the door shut and bolting it.
The panic was slow to abate, but it did. By degrees, it was replaced with a sense of foolishness. All that space through the door marked with an X was, was a relic of a good idea turned bad… A good idea turned bad that existed right there, bordering on my one-room home.
What stuck with me after that was the doll. It was known that those stricken by poverty had turned to that network of rooms and passages under South Bridge. Believably, those passages would seem a relief from the solitude of being left to the wind, rain, and disdain of the better-off. The only shelter: a horrendous mire of unventilated muck.
But the idea that children had lived down there… was a horror so much as it was profound tragedy.
Longer than the musty smell, the doll remained as a presence in my flat. I’d touched it, I thought time after time. Before, I’d imagined what someone sleeping where my bed was now would have experienced in a city two centuries younger. The doll was more poignant. I’d touched something perhaps last touched by a child who’d lived in the Vaults two hundred years ago.
I’d never taken one of the ghost tours into the Vaults. From pictures online, I struggled to believe those tours took people into the territory I’d traversed. The pictures of those tours had the Vaults looking cleaner and better set up for lighting than what I’d seen. I also struggled to believe the rubble tipped into the Vaults to close them off had reached as far as the section through my door. Surely, if filled then excavated, the section I’d seen would look less like it had just been left, worthwhile possessions taken, to moulder.
I didn’t speak of it to my classmate. Her enthusiasm didn’t match my unspoken reluctance to enter those Vaults again. More than that, her enthusiasm was a jarring contrast to that decomposed doll. I didn’t want pure enjoyment of the thrill to mar that half-rotten face some loving person had once carved in wood.
I heard noises from behind the wall more frequently now. Tuned to it, I supposed, and becoming more nocturnal. The noises didn’t happen during the day. I found myself staying awake later and later, somewhat against my better judgement, to hear them.
On one night, I lay in bed with my teeth grit and skin scudding, as someone pounded on my door from the Vaults. Though I’d repacked the cupboard, I hadn’t shoved it back over the door. In the light of only an outdoor streetlamp, wispy through the lace curtains, I prayed the bolt, hammered by blacksmiths many years ago, would hold. To not have the barricade of the cupboard, right then, seemed folly.
Every pound shook the door against the bolt. It seemed to go on for an age, and in that dark and lonesome time of night, I couldn’t believe it was urban explorers. Not for a time. I clutched my pillow, staring toward the unseen place behind the boxy cupboard, thinking of everything from ghouls to the ghosts tourists wanted to see in those derelict passageways.
Until I thought how horrible I’d feel if I saw it in the papers: an urban explorer who’d gotten stuck down there, like I’d feared I might, and died pounding on my door for help.
Shaken to the core, I crept out of bed, and stood before the door. I heard the pounding. Perhaps it was the low light, but I couldn’t see the door shake. I stared for it. I thought if someone who’d just been seeking the thrill of the Vaults was stuck in there, they’d call out, surely.
I called, in their stead, ‘Anyone there?’
And then I stood frozen, scared to hear anything at all in response. The X across the door, the writing in dripping paint… looked more ominous in the dark. Like dried blood.
“DO NOT ENTER”
Not breathing, I waited. And waited. But the pounding stopped. And no voice called back to me.
It left me alone in my little flat, surrounded by IKEA furniture and the one bin bag I’d yet to take down, jittering in my socks.
Chapter 2: Wails in the Dark
After that, I would take Mrs Whosit’s clunking over anything I could hear through that door. Hear through that wall.
I put my mind to ignoring it, though for reasons I had no words for… did not push the cupboard back. Curiosity. The awe of history. That the cupboard was a real task to shift along that cheap carpet… I answered that question with all of those paltry answers.
I ignored it. And ignored it. I ignored sounds of scraping or bumping against the wall. Ignored pounding or movement behind the door, that door becoming like the black spot on my tiny flat, cordoned off between a corner and the boxy cupboard. I even hung a sheet over that space, to screen it. Just for my own sake.
But I couldn’t ignore the crying. It came one night, while, drained, I was trying to sleep. And it reached me like nothing else could.
Events, frivolity, the idea of having Vault parties – I’d entertained those thoughts in my own little flat on occasions where the light streamed in through my windows, and new friends sent me text messages about fun little things.
None of that reached me in the night, one ear on a pillow, the other catching the desperate screams of what sounded like an infant.
I scrunched my eyes shut. Wished it would just stop.
But the child was beyond comfort. That baby was belting their lungs for someone to hear them. And it hurt like a poker ablaze, digging into my chest.
My teeth had grit. I don’t have kids, but that sound is universal. And I knew where it was coming from.
It was a cry dampened by a stone wall; I was sure, just on the other side of it. Mere feet from my bed.
I thought of the doll. I thought of the oppressive weight of darkness in there. I thought of people who couldn’t look after their children abandoning them, even in today’s world.
Those Vaults were no place for a baby.
I shoved back my covers, and placed bare feet on the carpet.
I’d need shoes.
I yanked on a pair of plimsolls. I stuck my phone in the pocket of the hoodie I pulled on, and gripped instead the torch I took out of my bedside drawer, its LED lights and chunky batteries hopefully more reliable illumination.
The X on my Vault door was a loud warning. Yet it was just health and safety that said I shouldn’t go in there. Precautions against the public getting lost or spending too long without ventilation.
The infant was still screaming.
‘Oh no…’ I uttered. Then I swallowed, flicked on my torch, and went for the bolt. The moment the door creaked open, my breath bated in some inexplicable need to be quiet, I heard the screams louder. They assaulted my ears, filling me with a need to shout – to ask whether anyone else was hearing this. Whether anyone else cared.
The Vaults under South Bridge stank. I’d braced for it, ready to not take a sniff. A black portal greeted me as the door bounced against my wall. It felt like descending into chilled hell, climbing, this time very quietly, through it.
I felt that chill up my spine. I trod through the damp muck, my feet on centuries-old stone. Eyes fixed on the circle of light my torch cast, shying away from the darkness that tickled its penumbra.
And heard a laugh.
Not like a cackle. But a low chuckle, from somewhere off to my right.
I didn’t make a sound, but I did inhale deeply in a silent gasp. My need to freak and search for the chuckler was bulldozed by the smell.
I choked, then fought a gag. Instantly, my eyes started to water.
It was like… like body odour drenched in rot and smothered all over with pure shite. Literal shite. I smelled not only a public bathroom, but one for a hoard of people with cholera, and the warm whiff of sweat and maggoty flesh.
I hadn’t smelled that before. I hadn’t heard, before, the slow drip of water somewhere in the bowels down here. It gave a greater blow of horrific than I’d known last time.
The archway ahead of me beckoned with blackness beyond it. And that ceaseless screaming. The circle of light my torch cast shivered. I couldn’t take a deep breath to steady myself. The smell alone had me ready to join the stink with that of vomit. Sucking air through my teeth, I crunched over the damp dust on rough stone, following the sound of inconsolable wails.
Empty to the right, down towards the hall of staircases. To the left: empty, but the crying was coming from that way.
I checked before and behind in equal measure with the torch as I just about tip-toed. I shone light into a room further away from my flat as I passed the door. A shifting seemed to distort the dark, but when the light from my torch caught it, there was nothing there.
I moved on. I blinked. A slow creep of welling tears, born of terror, had me blinking time and again to keep my vision clear.
There was an archway to my left. I reached it in reluctant steps. The wailing was coming from there. I knew it before I was in the doorway, air wisping cold and fetid between my teeth, my torchlight flicking from one side of the room to the other.
Nothing. It was empty but for what looked like scraps of cloth and straw, tarry black like the skirt of the doll had been.
But the cries were coming from here. I could hear it. I blinked harder – more rapidly. They were deafening now, impossible to not hear. A single tear dripped as I blinked, it feeling icy cold on my cheek.
I couldn’t just leave. I couldn’t not –
‘Where are you bub?’ I whispered into the decomposing vault.
There was a shuffle to the right of me. My eyes sunk shut. For just a second. Then I popped them open, terrified to be unable to see.
Below another arch, like a recess in the stone room, there was movement.
My heart was pounding loud enough to seem to reverberate these forgotten walls. I shone my light straight at the recessed space, but it was like I couldn’t see properly. Like that screen of tears, gathering on my lower lids, had made the bottom part of the recess murky.
I trod nearer, my yellow plimsolls looking ridiculous on the dank floor. I was moving towards the crying. I could tell that.
I reached a couple feet off the recess, blinking hard to see clearly.
And, in the sudden clear after a blink, a face looked up at me.
I squeaked, it a sound high-pitched enough to sound like a dying rat. I dropped the torch. It rolled on the floor, the room lit by noting more than referred illumination.
The face was gaunt. I thought it was coming in ripples out of the stone, until, on another terrified blink, I saw the layers of ratty clothing shrouding the head and shoulders.
Not a child, but a woman. Or… maybe younger than me, but a woman all the same. And she was just staring. Just staring and staring.
My eyes caught more and more, like a sudden shock of expanding vision. A scattering of blankets behind the woman – movement around me – a moan from a bed in the corner –
And a baby, clutched in the woman’s arms, bellowing their little lungs out.
It was, in that moment, obvious to me: they weren’t really there. I could see them – was blinking hard to continue to do so, tear after tear rolling down my cheeks with every blink. But they weren’t there.
They were like glistening shadows – like iridescent blackness reflected in empty air. A girl, just to my left, tugged a blanket up higher. I looked closer, and it was as though a blind spot appeared in my vision, just the stone wall behind the girl in my sights. I looked to the side, and there was the girl again, trying to get comfortable on a stone floor with a single blanket.
More. I saw more people around me, filling the stone dungeon room. A mattress of straw where three bodies slept. Another huddled blanket behind me.
And through the rough archway, the only door a section of nailed wood leant incompletely against the gap, I heard the echo of a voice yell for quiet. Heard a distant giggling. Heard shuffles and muted conversation.
There was no candle, but the last embers of a small fire filled the air with acrid smoke, drowning the worse scents. Beyond that attempt at a door, the dingy complex of passages and floors around me: that part was frightening. This room, abruptly, was not. The people here were simply desperate.
The woman’s bed was a blanket in the arched recess. Her eyes glinted in the ruddy glow of dying coals. She wasn’t feeding the baby. Wasn’t bouncing or swaying the wailing child. But she had a death grip on the bundle. If I looked just to the side, I could see her well. I saw her flesh sunken between cheekbone and jaw. Saw, worse than that, the bony hollows that were her temples.
And her eyes looked very much like they could see me.
She wasn’t well. Starvation or, that stink of sickness… She gripped the infant closer as I watched her tighten, then start coughing, her eyes squeezing shut. And if she wasn’t well, the baby wasn’t either.
‘It’s okay,’ I whispered, trying to reassure her. I reconsidered my words, thinking “okay” was perhaps too modern for her. ‘All will be well,’ I tried. I reached out, but I touched nothing. Just a funny and chilled sense of more in the air.
The woman’s eyes opened, her coughing fit slowing to little huffs. Her face was pinched in a look of such agony, lower eyelids drooped away from her eyes in some sign of something far from good.
‘I’ll care for your child,’ I whispered, knowing nothing else to say. ‘I’ll look after them.’
The woman’s eyes were like marbles in the dark. I looked to try to commit her face to memory, but the moment I focused straight on her, she disappeared, my eyes feeling crossed trying to stare at thin air. I swallowed and returned my gaze to the back of the recess.
‘All will be well,’ I breathed, seeing that desperate face in my periphery.
Then it all disappeared. Just melted away: glistening shadows ebbing to nothing. As far as I turned my gaze away, hoping to catch a sight in the corner of my eye, it was all gone. Only me, in a musty stone room, lit by a mucky torch on the floor. In dead silence.
The last was a shock. In those few moments, I’d become used to the moving sounds of life around me. Of that endless screaming of the baby in the woman’s arms. Without it, I realised I was frozen, shivering and knelt on a floor caked with wet dust and decayed detritus. The stone walls seemed to ring with the abrupt silence.
More profound than that, I was terrified all over again, feeling lost and alone in a forgotten corner of nowhere.
Ghosts, as far as what I’d read about the tours in these Vaults, didn’t appear in tableaus. They were catches of experience, felt in a draft, or captured in a camera, only to be seen later.
I gulped, hard, and shot for my torch, grabbing it up despite the muck. Out the archway, no rickety approximation of a door now, to the right. And back home.
Just get out of here.
I feared everything I saw that wasn’t stone. Expecting a human figure in empty spaces, murky and something far more terrifying than the sick woman and the people trying to sleep around her. I expected a malevolent stalker peeking out of the dark even as I swung my Vault door shut and bolted it soundly.
The knees of my pyjamas were dirty beyond brushing off, the torch needing the batteries removed and a good wash in the tap. My hands, trembling, needing the same, with dollop after dollop of soap.
I got it all clean. But, this time, when I sunk back onto my bed, the dark corner where the door into the Vaults lived shrouded once again by its sheet, I didn’t feel back at home.
I felt lost, chilled, and alone. Felt like I had in that stone room, for all my surroundings were IKEA, brighter, and modern.
The tickle in my throat was back. But now it felt more like a scratch. I tried to suppress it, but I began to cough. Just a small cough.
By my bed was that patch of damp, the fresh paint over it bubbled and starting to peel in places. It wasn’t surprising, considering how damp the Vaults were. Just on the other side of that wall.
That mar on the sanctity of my little flat was lasting. No matter what I did – finding cheap blankets that were colourful enough to inject some brightness, keeping the pricy lamps lit, running the radiators – it was as though the single room had lost five degrees of heat. Like there was something there, now, that hadn’t been there before. I avoided looking towards the screened-off Vault door. I began taking walks outside when the noises started up again behind the wall, trudging narrow cobble streets by the light of streetlamps.
I managed to find some normalcy during daytime, though. On my way back from class one afternoon, I heard the unmistakable sounds of Mrs Whosit making her difficult way down the stairs. I stopped at the ground floor door, spotting her with her bag and stick on the staircase, clunking down.
‘Want a hand?’ I asked.
Mrs Whosit didn’t even look at me. Going step by step: handrail, cane, then foot, she powered on. I said nothing else, merely standing aside for her to have her space. Her skirt was to mid-calf, but her legs weren’t visible below it. Between compression socks and bandages, hiding vascular disease or diabetes sores, they were wrapped up tight, and the swelling showed itself above them in a bulge. She seemed more breathless than usual too, every step appearing to take a great effort for her.
‘You all right?’ I asked when she finally reached the ground floor, her mighty bust heaving with replenishing breaths.
Mrs Whosit looked at me then. She jerked her head, as though aiming to raise her chin and look down on me, despite her diminutive height. She stalled, appearing to catch her breath. Then she glanced back at me again, steel wool hair jiggling about her head.
‘The last one …’ she wheezed, breathless, ‘in your flat … was found … two weeks late…’
It was a particularly peculiar thing to say, especially considering Mrs Whosit had said either nothing or only a grand total of a few words to me on every past occasion.
‘Er…’ I uttered. Mrs Whosit turned for the ground floor door, her stick seeming to strike the floor with vehemence. ‘Found two weeks late?’ I repeated, calling after her.
Mrs Whosit’s eyes were a light blue. I noticed it when she cast a condemning look at me over her shoulder.
‘Dead,’ was her answer.
My eyebrows shot up, but Mrs Whosit was on her way out, and nowt would stop her. I took her words as a condemnation. She certainly disliked me, so that was fitting. I noticed, with some vindictiveness, that the bandages around her legs needed changing. There was a spot of seepage that had created a discoloured patch on the back of one of them.
Still, I thought as I grabbed the handrail and bounded up the stairs in her wake, had the previous occupant of my flat died, that might explain why it was available when I’d gone looking for a rental right before start of term. People often didn’t die with proper warning.
I arrived on my floor more out of breath than I’d expected. Unlocking my door, my sudden wheezing caught into an unexpected cough.
I’d been getting small bouts of coughing, coming on in odd moments where congestion would have me wanting to dispel whatever was stuck in my lungs. Just a mild cold, I thought.
I hacked harder, against a stubborn rattle in my chest, then, my door sticking before clacking shut behind me, I leant against it, my throat going raw with the force of my coughing. It made my chest ache, and I sucked between coughs to replenish my air.
It hacked sticky goo out of my lungs. That bout, plus a couple more minor aftershocks, had me flushing yellow goop down the toilet, loo roll my tissue. I felt better after that, my lungs clear, only my throat still feeling the attack. I eyed myself in the mirror as I washed up. I looked fine. I looked normal against the backdrop of my little bathroom.
The single room of my flat, however… I stopped in the bathroom doorway. There was something daunting about it: as though it didn’t quite exist in the same sphere of existence the bathroom occupied. Cooler, both in colour and temperature.
I hustled over to my bedside lamp and flicked it on, wanting the warm illumination. I made my bed, pulling colourful cushions and blankets into a neat arrangement. It made the bed look an attempt to cheer up an endless stretch of brutalist concrete with a painting of a sunny landscape.
My eyes fell on the damp patch of wall beside the bed. I didn’t think it had gotten bigger since I’d moved in. Or, if it had, it was only marginally. The paint over it seemed to me no more bubbled, but I guessed more of those bubbles had cracked or peeled.
Stepping over, I leant down and reached out warily, my fingers touching the wall with a momentary flinch. It was cold, yes, and had certainly seen dampness in the past, but the more I inspected the patch, the less I thought it was presently damp. The carpet below it didn’t seem damp either, or smell musty. I pulled the edge back a little to peek under it. I spied floorboards that would be attractive, if they had some work done to revive them. They were scratched, and, peeling away a bit more carpet from the edge, I saw where damp had stained the wood up to a point along the floor, the floorboards beyond looking much nicer.
And there was… crust. Getting to my knees, I looked more closely at the damp-damaged wood. In the cracks between the floorboards and where they met skirting board, there were hints of something dark dried and stuck there that wasn’t present further away from the patch. A section of skirting board, I noticed as well, looked to have been replaced. All of it repainted as one, but it looked like a new bit of edging had been stuck in below the bubbled paint.
I’d tugged the carpet a little further back, investigating. It sent a billow of smell up to my nose that had me dropping the carpet. The whop of it snapping back into place wafted more of the smell up at me, and I jerked away, my nose wrinkled and a revolted horror sinking into my chest.
Hastily, I shoved to my feet and tripped to the kitchen sink, grabbing up soap and starting to scrub my hands.
Lingering purification. That’s what the smell was – that’s what the crust was – unable to be fully hidden with a new carpet.
It was what Mrs Whosit had said, at least in part. She’d put that thought into my head.
But if the previous tenant of my flat had died – had been found only two weeks later –
I shuddered at the sink, a wave of sick having me retching over it as I scrubbed and scrubbed my hands, desperate to get any even microscopic bit of putrefied human off them.
Where had they died? Against that wall? What of? Why had no one noticed for two weeks?
A tickle grew between my shoulder blades as I attempted sipping cold water, still leant over the sink and trying not to vomit into it. As the queasiness gradually abated, the tickle slipped into my guts, making them squirm.
I’d been facing the kitchen splashback for too long. That’s how it felt. Facing away from the wall that hid the Vaults. And now… I didn’t know what might be in the room behind me.
Just the creep factor of knowing someone had died in your flat, I told myself. I was someone who could say I’d seen ghosts. I’d never seen one inside my own flat. Never had the lights flicker, or heard bumps from inside the room itself.
Even so, the anxious squirming of my guts protested me turning around. That abnormal coolness of my flat seemed heavier now, sitting more oppressively down on me. Making me think… there were eyes I couldn’t see on me.
I turned, slowly, terrified. My own little flat met my gaze, the bed made and colourful, my IKEA furniture normal and sleek.
The patch of old damp by my bed wasn’t actually the hardest part of the room to look at. Over there, for all it was gruesome, didn’t appear to be looking back. Instead, it was the curtained-off space near the Vault door that coiled my guts tighter.
I made myself look, my heart thudding. I even made myself look just to the side, seeking a sight in my peripheral vision.
I saw nothing, but it didn’t make my heart beat any slower. Didn’t make me feel any less that I was in the company of a malevolent presence.
One I thought I’d let in. “DO NOT ENTER” the door said, in that dripping spray paint. It had been since I’d gone through that door at night that my flat felt different. There’d been no cold presence before then.
I’d made new friends at the University, them my only friends in Edinburgh. But I didn’t feel close enough yet to any of them to ask to crash at their place – especially didn’t feel close enough to tell them my desire to sleep on their couch was because I thought my flat haunted. My friends weren’t the sort of people to entertain the idea of ghosts.
For a long moment, leant against the kitchen worktop, I wondered what I could possibly do. It had been days, I pointed out to myself, since I’d gone into the Vaults at night. Nothing had happened to me. A cold presence did not necessarily signify danger. The air occupied by the apparition of the sick woman had felt cold.
In the end, all I did was walk over to my bed and sink onto it. I sat there, staring around, as the sky outside darkened to dusk; up to and past when I heard Mrs Whosit stomp down from the South Bridge entrance two floors up. She clunked, unsteady and slow, into her flat above, and sought out her squeaky armchair. Oddly, the sound of Mrs Whosit moving around actually made me feel better. It was normal.
Chapter 3: A Low Chuckle
The sense of a cold and malevolent presence in my flat dimmed with the calming of my dismay over the damp patch being human juice. By that night, having heard Mrs Whosit get up from her armchair twice, welcoming every clunk of her walking stick, I was breathing much more easily, my bedside and desk lamps burning warm.
I did sleep that night, finding closing my eyes less daunting than I’d worried, and woke to be greeted with sunshine through my lace curtains. It offered a sort of levity: with this new day dawning, all of a sudden I felt I could move on without the weight of the Vaults hanging over me.
Yet the noises behind the wall didn’t go away. Bolstered by feeling once more at home in my flat, I grew accustomed to just not paying them attention. If I thought about it, I saw indistinct tableaus of people long dead behind that wall. So I didn’t think of it.
It was likely due to this newfound levity that it was only four days later I noticed I hadn’t heard Mrs Whosit clunk around for a while. For how long, exactly, I wasn’t sure. The last time I’d really paid attention to her clunk and shuffle was on the last day I’d seen her.
I probably wouldn’t have thought twice about it – would have assumed she was out of town or in the hospital for those legs – were it not for what she’d said to me. Found them two weeks later. It was a thought that stuck fast in my head, unshakable.I had no great love of Mrs Whosit… but every time I tried to go back to scrolling the internet, the horror of two weeks oozed back into my mind like a powerful odour.
On the stairs, headed up to Mrs Whosit’s floor, I queried what to tell her if she came to the door. That I’d been worried about her? That I was just checking on her – wanted to see if she needed anything? I’d go with that, for all I expected a silent stare or scoff from her in response.
Instinctively, hovering before her door, I took a sniff. I caught a slight whiff of something unpleasant, but it didn’t immediately scream decomposing human. It smelled more like rubbish that hadn’t been taken out and a kitchen no one was cleaning.
Lifting a fist, I knocked.
Waiting for a response from someone you worried was dead, even a neighbour you didn’t get along with, is an antsy experience. My thoughts filled, not pleasantly, with the knowledge Mrs Whosit was old. And sick. Chronic illness, living alone in a tiny flat… And, as far as I knew, Mrs Whosit never had visitors. No family who came to check on her. Not even a community nurse or home care service.
No answer had met my knock. Starting to feel jumpy, I rapped again, harder, on her door.
‘Hello?’ I called at the closed door. ‘It’s… er… me from downstairs. You all right?’
Nothing. I turned an ear to the painted wooden door, smudged and discoloured in places by finger grease, and listened hard. Not a squeak from Mrs Whosit’s armchair. Not a humph or disdainful utterance.
She could be out, doing her shop for microwave dinners. But it was a weekend, and I’d been home all day. Granted, I’d only woken at about ten, but Mrs Whosit didn’t tend to leave early.
I hesitated a moment longer at the door. It wasn’t coming to a decision that made me back away, but a growing sense of that stubborn rattle in my chest. I turned from the door, a hand to my mouth, as I started coughing. It was over quickly, my face scrunched as, without any other option, I swallowed the goop. Then, my chest clear again, I looked back to Mrs Whosit’s door, an uncertain fist raised to, perhaps, try knocking one more time.
It began in that fist: a weighty sense of chill. Not like when I’d passed a hand through the sick woman. Different. More frightening. From my raised arm, then through my body – I shuddered, feeling as though something cold and wrong had just passed right through me.
It had me backing away. Had my guts start doing their squirming thing again. The whitewashed stairwell, with its industrial flooring, suddenly looked cold. Like my flat had until four days ago.
And, when I returned to my flat, that same cold was back in it. Stood in my doorway, it filled me with a churning dismay. My teeth grit, I fought a growing terror. A return of terror – making the days without that sense of malevolence and unseen eyes seem like a buoyant holiday I hadn’t properly appreciated.
The presence was back. Somehow – for some reason – it had returned. Where it’d gone… It seemed a silly notion, but one I entertained all the same: had it gone to stay for a time with Mrs Whosit?
If I’d been worried before that she’d died, now I felt sure of it. Rationally, it was probably just me being emotional. Every time I’d worried about death – the poor sick woman and baby, the previous tenant who’d decomposed against my wall, and now Mrs Whosit – I’d felt there was a malevolent presence nearby. Their eyes on me. It was an understandable psychological reaction, I told myself.
But, even so, with greater conviction, I rang up my landlord.
It took three hours for him to arrive, a set of keys in one hand. I dallied, unsure about following him up. So I just left my door open a crack, and listened.
The landlord knocked like I had. He got no response, like I had. But he, unlike me, could unlock Mrs Whosit’s door. I heard him step into the flat one floor above. Heard him walk further in, pause, then walk back out.
And then I heard him on the phone, and my eyelids sunk shut.
The police. He’d called the police. They came up from the ground floor door, and they were followed, an hour later, by four people in hazmat suits, one carrying a stretcher, their unmarked van parked on the narrow cobble street below.
I went out then, wanting to talk to the landlord. Wanting to get some sense of exactly what had happened. I couldn’t find the landlord. He appeared to have buggered off. But one police officer did respond when I said I knew Mrs Whosit in passing. He told me only that she’d died, and added that she had been elderly and not in good health. And he told me her name was Mrs Melville.
I caught a glimpse of Mrs Melville’s flat behind him. It was two steps toward a hoarder’s home, but I couldn’t summon anything but horror and pity for her now. Of course she couldn’t keep her home clean.
The body bag was carried down to the van, and Mrs Melville’s flat was taped off. I sat long into the night, the flat above me silent and my cold home weighing down on me, too aware that my hands were unsteady, shivery and tingling. Alone, late at night in my flat, I now felt far from the fresh adult stretching her wings as a first year uni student.
It didn’t matter what rationalisations I could come up with to deny it, a large part of me was sure whatever I had let in had killed Mrs Melville.
The thump against the wall behind my bed just had me staring, without blinking, at my single-room flat, lit by no more than my bedside lamp. Its warm light struggled to reach the walls. Struggled to warm the shadows. Muted movement behind my Vault door. I listened, not doing anything, as my unblinking eyes went gritty.
I blinked, on a thought, and started searching my own flat. If this was the time the Vaults came alive with their memories, I might see the presence that had followed me out. Scanning everything through my peripheral vision, I searched, my eyes darting this way and that; lingering near the curtain that screened the Vault door, expecting the presence there.
But that presence in my room had been there during the daytime, unlike the echoes of past lives in the Vaults. The presence that had followed me was something different. Not a memory in a stone room. But something else.
I heard it before I really registered it. Not the crying of an infant, like last time, but the keening wail of a girl. It came, however, from the same place the infant’s cry had: just on the other side of the wall behind me.
I’d have thought I’d be more reluctant, after all that had happened. But despondency at ongoing fear seemed to breed a lack of care. I’d already let something through that door. It was already targeting me. And it had already done whatever it had to Mrs Melville.
I remembered the sick woman. The baby. The other people in that room, choked with the smoke of a fire without a flue. I’d seen a girl in that room, trying to be warm and comfortable under a single ratty blanket.
I’d known when I said it to the woman that my words were a lie. I’d told her I’d care for her child. I’d known that was complete shite. There was no way to care for a baby who’d died likely two centuries before. There had been absolutely no chance that, despite what I’d said, “all would be well”. It was just rubbish I’d spouted because… maybe that woman who could see me would be comforted by it.
Yet I had said it. I had promised her I’d look after her child. It shouldn’t matter what I’d said to an echo of a life lost so long ago, but it mattered to me. Mrs Melville’s body removed from her flat, me sitting alone in a cold room, far from hopeful for sleep or normalcy… That promise mattered to me then a great deal.
My yellow plimsolls, my hoodie, phone tucked into it, and the torch in my hand. I stood before the curtain, fortified by some intangible daring that made me yank the curtain back. The presence wasn’t visible there either. I hadn’t expected it to be. They weren’t visible. And their eyes, instead, were on my back. I could feel it.
The hairs at the back of my neck tickled. “DO NOT ENTER” the door read. But, by the light of my torch, I yanked the bolt aside, ready for the stench of poverty sent underground.
It hit me with force as I swung the door open. Along with it came the unmistakable sounds of a slum not abandoned. I heard people moving, heard something clang, heard the deadened voices of distant conversation, water dripping; heard something being dragged along the floor. And, quieter now, the wretched sobs of a little girl.
No chilling chuckle met me this time as I climbed quietly to the dirty floor. But it seemed, once I’d been able to, I couldn’t unsee the past.
Up against one wall of the alcove were the broken bottles from forty years ago. They were what I focused on if I looked directly at them. Looking just to the side, my torch pointed a short way away, I could see soil buckets, many shoved in together, like this alcove was a makeshift latrine without plumbing. Could see more mess on the floor, an attempt to deal with it indicated by scatterings of hay over the muck.
It should be a space devoid of anyone who didn’t need to be there. But to the other side, as far away as possible from the worst of the muck, was a person, lain flat on the floor up against the wall. I didn’t look at them long. They weren’t under a blanket, but covered only by a frayed coat. I couldn’t tell whether they were dead, unconscious, or just sleeping. I didn’t want to find out.
Beyond the alcove, and through the archway into the corridor, the horrendous stink was smothered by what should be chimney smoke, channelled up through passages with no chimneys. I could even see, like a fuzzy shroud of shifting air, the smoke that wafted, spreading everywhere. Beyond it, to my right, was the moving shadow of a person in a cloak, striding out of sight in the hall of staircases.
Seeing that person’s movement gave me pause. It made it real in a way the lifeless body on the floor behind me hadn’t. I stalled, the frightened outsider, just inside the corridor. Feeling like I really shouldn’t be here. Wondering whether, just maybe, I was wrong to assume I was seeing nothing more than echoes.
I heard him climb the stairs. It didn’t stop me gulping, startled and freezing in place, when a young man emerged from the hall of stairs and turned into the corridor I was standing in. I stared just to the side of him, focused on him. Not tall, not well fed, and not well dressed either: he was bare foot, in shorts that looked meant for a younger boy, and wrapped into a coat too small for him. His unshod feet tramped the disgusting floor, heedless of dirty straw and odd bits of refuse that rose the ground by the edges of the passage.
And he didn’t appear to see me. I stared, fighting a need to look directly at the approaching echo, knowing I’d see nothing if I did; fighting a desire to duck out of sight. Yet, his head bowed, he didn’t glance at me.
In seconds, he was upon me. I braced for it, expecting a sense of being passed through, and grit my teeth as I felt that heavy cool brush by. I gasped. It sucked smoke into my lungs and I, though I fought it, started coughing.
Even that, me working to keep my coughs quiet and my gaze focused just to the side so I could see him, didn’t make the youth notice me. As though he’d heard or seen nothing, he shoved through a ratty drape of cloth into a room where a man mumbled drunkenly to himself.
It was all unpleasant. It was all more than disconcerting. But I found that didn’t amount to terror. The echoes seen weren’t evil. And being able to see the echoes around me made it all less frightening than invisible lurkers. I kept my torch pointed at the floor. It showed a ring of brightness that revealed the floor as it really was: in the 21st Century. I avoided looking at that ring, wanting my eyes adjusted to the much dimmer world around it, where the 1800s shone through time in impossible glistening shadows.
The room the youth had passed into was lit by a single candle. I could see a spot of light through the drape over the door. Beyond, in the hall of stairs, I caught the shift of a moving light somewhere a floor or more below.
Just people. Living here.
I turned to my left, and headed up the passage. The child had stopped crying. I listened for it as I trod quietly, but there was nothing. Not a sniffle. Not a wail.
I thought I knew where the girl was, though. If she was the same girl I’d seen before…
My vision was tuned to it now, but the room I slipped into looked empty of people. Before, there had been three on the ratty pile of straw and rags that served as a mattress. Now, the mattress was there, but it was uninhabited. No people under blankets, no coals aglow with a dying fire; the makeshift door fallen to the floor, no one having attempted to use it to close the archway.
I looked toward the recess, focusing my gaze just to the side of it. I saw them there. Not all of them. Whether the other people who before had slept in this room had been family or just accommodating, they’d left at some point. All I saw were three figures, one of them a bundle of blankets holding a baby that no longer wailed. That no longer moved.
My eyes welled for a new reason this time. It wasn’t fear. For all I knew these people were long dead – knew that this would be the inevitable result of the woman’s illness – I hated to see it. In those seconds before her echo had disappeared last time, I’d felt a deep compassion for the woman.
I lowered to my knees beside the recess, dropping my torch to cast its circle of light off to the side. The woman’s eyes weren’t fully shut. Her head was propped uncomfortably by the rough stone wall. The stink was appalling. The sight was moreso. It had been only a matter of time, and it seemed that time had passed while I’d lived my life in my one room flat, trying to ignore the family just behind my wall.
Even after death, unlike Mrs Melville, I didn’t know the woman’s name. Nor the baby’s. Nor, huddled just beside the woman, the name of the young girl.
The young girl though, wasn’t dead. I watched her twitch, looking far from comfortable. But she was asleep, head sunk on a hand rested over one knee.
The little girl started to cough. It roused her only slightly. Her neck like jelly, her gaunt cheeks puffing, she coughed without covering her mouth. Then her head just sunk right back down, resting itself on the bony pillow of her knees. I could see where the tracks of tears had left clean runnels in the dirt on her face.
My thoughts raced – absurd as it might be to think: wondering what I might do to get her to follow me. Bring her home, and…
What? Feed her?
Hopeless. My moment of wild thought – of wanting to do something for this family – fell short. There was nothing I could do.
‘You’ll find comfort,’ I whispered to the girl, hoping she, like the woman, might be able to sense me. ‘All will be well.’
Senseless words. Useless words. I railed at them even as I spoke them. No hope for these people. No one to care for them, or assist them. Mrs Melville had the offer, at least, of some government assistance. Had food. These people had nothing.
For a long moment, I just gazed off to the side, seeing the girl at the edge of where I was focusing. She snoozed on, too weak to do owt else.
I’d lapsed into a deep funk, simply watching, despondent, when I was shaken alert by footsteps behind me. It was a sudden sense of danger – of terror – that had me shifting to get a foot under me. But I was too late.
I felt the weighty cold pass through me in a way I hadn’t in these vaults. In a way I’d only felt before at Mrs Melville’s door. Heavy. Cold. Malevolent.
I shuddered, momentarily disorientated. Then remembered to look just to the side. And saw them.
First a jacket, less dirty and threadbare than I thought I’d see down here. I spied that with an unexplained need to fight it. Proper boots. Trousers cut to an adequate length –
And the hands of a man – careless hands, grabbing the front of the woman’s clothes. He’d yanked her up a little, staring into the dead face, her unseeing eyes half-shrouded by lifeless lids. From her chest, the baby tumbled – caught by the man as he let the woman drop back down, her head knocking against the stone wall.
Centuries ago. That’s what I was seeing. Yet I flew into a rage. Losing sight of what I was fighting as I tried to tear the baby from his grasp – tried to haul the man away.
But my fingers met cold air. I was fighting shadows. Echoes. The man paid me no mind. He’d pulled the blankets from the little face.
‘Bairn,’ he muttered. He glanced to the side, where, I spotted then, another man stood.
I was on knees and one hand, gaping up at them. I heard the second man grunt. I saw him stoop. Saw him pull the girl’s head up by the hair.
‘Professor wants bairns,’ the first man said, as the second man stared into the girl’s face, her eyes slipping only slowly open. ‘Pay well for ‘em…’
The words made a sudden sense to my stunned brain. Professor –
Two centuries ago, my own university and many others had paid for dead bodies to dissect. Adults and children both. It was well known. That was the birth of doctors really knowing the human body.
And down here, under South Bridge, would be prime pickings for body snatchers.
‘Got no one,’ the first man said, gruff. ‘Orphan.’ He was silent for a moment, watching the girl, the baby held, uncaring, in one hand. The girl was coming more awake now, her eyes flinching wide as she noticed the two men. ‘She’s a sickly one.’
For all her sudden terror, the girl was weak. Her head hung from her hair as the second man, holding her head up, gazed dispassionately at her. Though he said not a word in response, he appeared to take the first man’s words as permission.
I’d expected them to take the dead bodies. I wasn’t prepared for how low they’d stoop.
I saw the second man’s hand. It still took me a moment to register he’d really clamped it over the sick girl’s mouth and nose.
She tried to fight. She had no chance.
With a cry, I launched at the second man, his hateful face blank as he deprived the girl of the fetid air she needed to breathe. I hit the stone wall, scraping my knuckles and jarring my shoulder. It was insanity, me flailing at shadows. And the man took no notice of me.
But the girl, not far off death, did. Struggling ineffectively against someone far stronger, her eyes landed on me.
I’d fallen back to hands and knees.
‘I’m sorry,’ I told her, keeping her face in the corner of my eye. ‘I’m so sorry.’
She kept staring, even as she stopped fighting. Her eyes a dark glisten.
‘All will be well,’ I breathed to her. ‘I’m here. You can see me. I’m here. And I’m sorry. But there will be comfort soon…’
Stupid words. And then her eyes were glowing glassy. With brash hands, the first man was bundling the baby into the woman’s jacket. Was lifting the dead weight of them as one. The second man – the murderer – was grabbing the girl, hauling her up over his shoulder. Packaged and ready for sale. Something tumbled down over the murderer’s back, landing on the muck of the floor. He took no notice. He carried the girl like a sack of potatoes.
I stared after them as they left the room empty of bodies.
‘We’ll eat well tonight,’ said the first man, jocular, as the discarded makeshift door clattered under his foot.
In response, the murderer gave only a low chuckle.
Chills washed my body from head to toe. I stopped breathing.
I knew that chuckle. I’d heard it the first time I’d entered the Vaults at night.
The men were gone. My gaze landed on the object that had fallen from the little girl. For a second, my stupidity had me reaching for it, wanting to pull it toward me. I couldn’t, but, edging nearer, I could see what it was.
A doll. With a dress made of rags cut into strips. And a wooden face lovingly carved with a smile.
The same doll, long since decayed, I’d found one floor up.
The sights and sounds of the past were already dissolving. Falling away from my senses. Leaving me there, with eyes running and an unspeakable horror in my heart, in the here and now. By the light of my torch that showed nothing but a bare stone wall and floor.
How the doll had gotten one floor up. That was what I wondered in a long silent moment in that dark. Some other child had found it, I thought. Taken it with them to their dank stone room that was the only home they knew.
I could feel I was caked with grime. I didn’t care. I didn’t want to head back home either. But it was all I had.
Grabbing my torch, I plodded back along a stone floor now empty of its memories. My exertion – or inhaled smoke – had my lungs wheezing. I saw the rectangle that led back into my flat, lit by my single bedside lamp. Tossing the torch onto the new carpet, I climbed out of the alcove, back into my one room home. And shut the Vault door behind me.
The wheeze turned to a rattle in my chest. It had me coughing on my way over to the kitchen sink. My hands were near black with grime. I scrubbed them under the tap.
The rushing water and my hacking at the goop in my chest had been the only sound. It was accented, as I stood there with my back to my flat, with a new noise.
A low chuckle. From somewhere behind me.
Even if I’d wanted to gasp or scream, my coughs had gotten worse. My mouth, opened for some kind of yelp, had my furious coughs fleck my arm with goop. And this time, it wasn’t just mucous. In the low light, it was stained with something darker.
The disembodied chuckle was louder this time. My insides twisted. Feeling those eyes on my back.
And the terrible presence inside my flat. Cold and heavy. Like death.
This story was written for a competition with the theme “Urban Chills”. Trying to work out what to write for it, I returned to a bunch of different rabbit holes, only to severely disappoint myself that urban legends tend to be just that: already fiction. The deeper I dug into myths I’d found and loved in the past, the less spectacular they became – very sadly.
But, wonderfully, South Bridge is real. As was the slum that existed below it. You can take those tours in the Edinburgh Vaults, and that rabbit hole of online digging is open for anyone who wants to delve!
Attribution for the lower photo in the title image:
Shadowgate from Novara, ITALY, CC BY 2.0
https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0, via Wikimedia Commons