‘Elspeth, another bucket!’ Elspeth looked up from the alleyway to see her mother’s head vanish behind the glass. All night she’d been up and down tossing the contents of the chamber pot from their third-floor window, then marching down to the alley below to fill the bucket at the leaking tap. She’d been out early trying to scrub away the filth of last night, but the street still ran with raw sewage and it stank worse than ever since the dysentery had come.
Water sloshed against steel, Elspeth braced her arms, then holding the bucket aside, lifted each foot in its sturdy boot beneath the tap. As she hauled the water up the staircase, she thanked the gods that she’d to work in the tavern that night. Anything to escape the stench of sickness that filled their one-room flat.
‘She’s at it again, thought there’d be aught left in her,’ her mother said. Isla, red in the face, collapsed back against the pillows on her makeshift bed. They’d sent the other children to stay with an aunt as soon as the sickness had taken, prayed they’d been in time to prevent it from spreading. With the suffocating air in the room, it was only a miracle she and her mother hadn’t caught it, tending the child as they had.
‘It’s alright pet,’ Elspeth said, dipping a clean rag in the bucket and holding it to Isla’s forehead. ‘Rest now, you’ll be alright.’ She turned to her mother. ‘You should get out, get some air,’ she told her. The woman nodded, doubtful. ‘If you’re sure you can manage on your own for a bit… You’re not feeling it yourself?’ Elspeth smiled and shook her head. ‘I must be wicked,’ she said, ‘not to get something so catching.’
In the evening, Elspeth buttoned up her winter coat and left her mother sitting sentry by the girl. Her father had stayed in Leith on her mother’s instruction. No point in the man coming home, they needed the wage he earned on the docks and it was better he holed up in one of those ships he built than coming home to a house of sickness.
Elspeth picked her way down the cobbled wynd and across the Haymarket. It was a cold, dry night, the sky punctuated with stars. In her bag she carried her good shoes, a skirt and blouse to change into before her shift. She’d started working in The White Hart Inn just three months before: on her sixteenth birthday. Her father knew the owner, and with no other employment she could scarcely refuse. She’d told herself it was temporary, that somehow she’d get an apprenticeship with the printing press. And then the ban had come, outraging union and workers alike. Rather than pay equal wages, the press had put a ban on women working in the industry, leaving Elspeth collecting empties, clearing the slop from half-drunk pints and coping with the advances of the men of the Haymarket.
Elspeth’s shift went slow that night. She kept glancing at the clock as she went from table to table gathering glasses and running a cloth across the table tops till they shone. Two men sat in one corner by the fireplace. One of them, with ferret-like features and small twinkly blue eyes, grinned every time she passed. Elspeth ignored him. She hated leery customers, but it was her job to serve and smile. In all, no more than a dozen people came through the doors that night and half an hour to closing, with the bar empty, her employer told her she could go home.
Elspeth stepped out the side-entrance of the pub into the small cobbled courtyard where the trash overflowed. She sat on the step, unlaced her good shoes and shoved her tired feet into her boots. Clean them as she might, she couldn’t rid them of the stink of sewage.
As she made her way up the high street, she heard voices. Three men were standing in the square outside St Giles’s Church. As she drew closer, she recognised the ferret-faced man from the bar. He held a stick aloft in one hand as his friend leaned menacingly in towards the third man: a stranger. ‘I told you already, I can’t help you,’ the stranger said. ‘Now if you don’t mind.’ The ferret prodded the man in the chest with the stick and the man attempted to grab hold of it, but the ferret was too quick and whipped it out of his reach. His friend cackled; his hand on the stranger’s shoulder. They hadn’t heard Elspeth approach, and the stranger, though facing her, didn’t appear to have seen her. Elspeth stopped, she stepped into a side-street where she could observe without being noticed. The stranger attempted to pass, but the ferret blocked his way. Elspeth took a whistle from her pocket, blew on it twice – it’s sharp sound piercing the air. Then she stepped onto the high street again, turned towards the close and began to shout and point in the men’s direction. The ferret-faced man turned. ‘Over there,’ Elspeth shouted, beckoning to the invisible police men. The ferret’s companion let go of his captive and the two of them began to run up the high street towards the castle. The ferret dropped his stick and it clattered onto the cobbles as Elspeth ran towards the man who’d remained, unmoving, outside the church.
‘Quick,’ she said, ‘before they come back.’ She blew on the whistle again, suppressed a laugh as the ferret and his friend stumbled, then quickened their pace. But the man continued to stand there. ‘My stick…’ he said, and Elspeth realised that he was blind. She ran the few steps to where the ferret had dropped the stick and retrieved it. There was no sign of the two men, but she was anxious to be out of there. There was nothing to say they wouldn’t turn back when they realised no one giving chase. ‘Follow me,’ she said, taking the man’s arm. ‘Where do you live?’
‘That way,’ the man said, turning in the opposite direction, and Elspeth was surprised that he knew which way he faced. ‘Beyond Prince’s Street.’
‘I’ll walk with you,’ Elspeth told him.
The man nodded. And she looked at him properly for the first time, taking in the long pale fingers that held the stick, the clear, unseeing, eyes. He was younger than she’d imagined, maybe twenty-two or twenty-three. His shoes were polished, and she was glad that he couldn’t see her old scuffed boots.
They set off down High street, walking quickly, Elspeth occasionally looking over one shoulder to make sure they weren’t being followed.
‘Did you know those two men?’ she asked.
The young man shook his head. ‘Never saw them in my life.’
It was a strange expression, she thought, from someone who couldn’t see. ‘You shouldn’t walk round this part of town on your own at night.’
‘That’s funny,’ he said. ‘Coming from such a young girl.’ He laughed, and his teeth shone white as the moon.
Elspeth coloured. Surely, he could see the difference in circumstances. ‘How do you know I’m so young?’ she asked.
‘Your voice. The way you walk… light of foot.’
Elspeth looked down at her feet again. Glad he couldn’t see them. She thought of her mother tending Isla, the heat of their flat and the smells rising from the street below their window. The young man had turned onto Prince’s Street, but he didn’t stop. Instead, he turned left heading towards Charlotte Square. ‘You live here?’ she asked.
‘I hope I haven’t taken you too far out of your way?’
Elspeth laughed. ‘I live in Grassmarket,’ she told him. ‘My father, mother and my three siblings live in one room. Right now, it’s a nightmare. The whole tenement’s got the dysentery. My mother and I were up all night with my younger sister Isla.’
‘Isla,’ he repeated, savouring the name. He stopped outside a tall brick house, and Elspeth’s eyes travelled up the three stories, awestruck. She’d often wondered about the people who lived in Charlotte Square, she’d rarely dared to even walk through the area.
‘Would you like to come in?’ the young man asked her.
‘Oh, God no. No, I’d best get back to my sister…’ In truth, she’d have given anything to see inside the blind boy’s house, but she was afraid that his mother might come to the door and see her in her stinky boots and her worn dress.
‘Who do you live with?’ she asked.
‘No one – just me,’ he said, and smiled.
Elspeth hovered on the pavement as the blind boy climbed the steps, his cane tapping on concrete. ‘I’ve got something,’ he told her. ‘For your sister. You can wait here if you want or…’
Elspeth climbed the steps as he opened the front door. She crouched and took her boots off. What harm if there was only him in the house? He didn’t ask what she was doing, but she had a feeling he knew. She felt that he could sense her every move as clearly as any picture.
The hallway was enormous. The carpet so thick that her feet sank into the soft pile. She raised her head to look at the high ceiling. A chandelier hung at the end of the stairs, candles lit, illuminating the thick coving that ran around the ceiling’s edges. The stairs went on and on and disappeared at the top into darkness.
She followed the young man who’d vanished into a room to the right of the door. He’d lit the lamp, which she imagined was for her benefit. She wondered what he did when he was here alone, whether he felt his way round in the dark. Against one wall was a grand piano. Elspeth crossed to it, ran her fingers over the sleek wood. She eased the lid up to look at the keys, all neat in a row like teeth.
‘Do you play?’ the young man asked. And she was startled again by his ability to know what she was doing and where she stood. She’d heard the other senses became stronger if you lost one, and she supposed that must be the case. She wondered if the blind boy heard insects crawling on the floorboards, if he could hear mice scurrying by on the other side of the wall.
‘No. Do you?’ she asked.
He crossed the room and sat on the small swivel stool. Carefully, he propped his stick against the end of the piano. Fingers poised, he began to play. Elspeth stood back to watch, all thoughts now of returning home abandoned. It was not yet time that her shift ended, so it would do no harm to stay a few minutes longer. Her mother would take care of Isla. There was no hand on a burning forehead as cool as her mother’s.
She walked to the window, feet making no sound on the carpet, and she stood and looked out into the square, at the tall houses uniform in their glory. The tune that the boy played was heartbreakingly beautiful. The notes rose and fell as his long thin fingers danced up and down the keys. Elspeth listened, entranced.
‘Where did you learn to play like that?’ she asked him.
The boy smiled. ‘My grandmother.’
‘Is she alive still?’
He shook his head. ‘She drowned in the river,’ he told her. ‘When I was only ten years old.’
‘And your parents?’ Elspeth asked.
The young man stood up and felt for his stick. ‘You ask a lot of questions.’
He walked out of the room, and Elspeth followed. She hoped she hadn’t offended him. Her mother had always told her that she was too curious. That there were times when a person ought not to say what it is that burns in their mind. The boy stopped at the foot of the stairs, and Elspeth stared up into blackness. He began to climb the stairs, and she wondered if he’d forgotten to light the lamps, so used was he to the night. But she said nothing and gripping the banisters she climbed too, the darkness thick around them, silence humming in Elspeth’s ears.
When they’d reached the end of the landing, the boy took a key from his pocket. Elspeth’s eyes had adjusted now, helped by moonlight filtering into the landing from an open door, which she presumed to be somebody’s bedroom, the boy’s perhaps.
When he opened the door to the room, he struck a match and held it to the wick of a candle. This was a bedroom, a woman’s bedroom. On a dressing table, stood bottles of perfume, an ivory-handled hairbrush, and a photo in a silver frame. Elspeth picked it up. In the photo there were two women and a toddler. The younger woman had the boy’s face and Elspeth wondered if it were his mother, but this time she didn’t ask. She picked up the hairbrush and in it there were long white-blonde strands of hair that came away in her fingers.
Elspeth turned to the young man who had crossed the room to unlock a drawer in a bedside table. He took something from the drawer and locked it again. He took Elspeth’s hand and in it he placed a small glass vial. ‘Give your sister three drops of this tonight,’ he said.
‘What is it? Elspeth asked, staring, she could see nothing through the brown glass.
‘Medicine. I guarantee she’ll be better by the morning.’
Elspeth was doubtful, but she thanked the strange young man and put the small bottle in her pocket. Then she followed him back down the gloomy landing to the stairway.
Isla was no better when she got home. Her mother sat over her with a wet cloth, which she intermittently plunged into a bucket in an attempt to cool it. The child sweated and shivered as she lay back against the pillow. She didn’t even react when Elspeth sat next to her. ‘Can you sit up pet and drink a little?’ she crooned, taking the jug and pouring a small tumbler of water. She turned to her mother. ‘Take a rest mammy. I’ll sit with her now.’ Her mother hovered for a few minutes, then nodded and took the bucket, which she’d covered with a cloth to contain the smell, and with a shout of Gardyloo, she threw the contents into the street. Elspeth took the vial from her pocket, glanced at her mother who was busy with mop and disinfectant, and told her sister to stick out her tongue. Isla clutched her stomach as she was seized by a spasm, but she did what she was told and quickly Elspeth tapped out the three drops that the young man had described and returned the vial to the folds of her dress.
Isla slumped back against the pillows. Her mother crossed the room, bucket in hand. ‘Did she drink anything?’ Elspeth nodded, turned from her sister. ‘What about the children?’ she asked. ‘Healthy, thank God. Your aunt sent word today.’ Elspeth looked at Isla, whose spasms had passed. ‘Rest, mammy, please. She seems more settled. I’ll stay by her tonight. You can take over in the morning.’ Her mother nodded, weary. ‘Call me if she worsens,’ she said.
Elspeth settled in a blanket near her sister, her back against the wall. She was afraid that if she didn’t stay upright, she would sleep. She busied her mind with thoughts of the young man in Charlotte Square, the tall brick house with its darkened rooms and his slim fingers on the keys of the piano. Some time during the night, Isla’s breathing grew quieter. Elspeth leaned forward and looked at her sister’s sleeping face. Her skin no longer seemed damp, her body no longer agitated. She didn’t wake to use the bucket. Elspeth rose and walked about the room in her stockinged feet, careful not to wake her mother whose eyes had closed almost as soon as she’d lain down on the mattress. Neither she nor the child moved for the remainder of the night.
Her mother was the first to wake. She leapt to her feet, anxious. ‘How is she?’ She knelt by the makeshift bed to look at Isla. ‘Fever’s passed. She slept through the night,’ Elspeth told her. She’d opened the window and already the room had begun to smell fresher. Her mother laid a hand on Isla’s forehead and she stirred but didn’t wake. ‘Thank God,’ she said. Elspeth rested her hand on her shoulder as silently the woman wept.
Isla’s condition improved throughout the day. Elspeth said nothing about the blind boy or about the vial that she’d hidden in a small ornamental jug out of the children’s reach. Word was sent to her father at the docks and when he came home that evening, Elspeth told her mother that she was taking a walk. She had been cooped up since sunrise.
She pulled on her winter coat. On her feet, her worn boots. They took her down close after close until she reached Prince’s Street, and then she kept going until she arrived in Charlotte Square. She walked past the big houses looking for number twenty-nine, and when she arrived in front of its large blue door, the house was in darkness. She was not surprised. What need had the blind boy for light? Elspeth climbed the steps, she rang the bell and waited, but no one came to the door.
Elspeth looked around. There was light in most of the other houses, but no one in the street, and so she stepped up to the big window, cupped her hands and put her face to the glass. She withdrew in surprise, and then stepped up to the window for a second look. Everything in the room was covered by dust sheets. The piano – she could still make out it’s shape on the long wall – was covered too, along with the small stool where the boy had sat. Had he left so suddenly? He’d said nothing, but then why would he? She was a stranger. She knew nothing about the boy or of his life.
Elspeth turned to walk back down the steps, disappointed that she hadn’t got to thank him, to tell him that her sister was well. An old woman had come out of the house next-door and was looking at her, curious. Elspeth was glad of the failing light. ‘Are you looking for someone?’ the woman asked. Elspeth nodded. ‘A young man,’ she said. The woman shook her head. ‘No one lives there,’ she said. ‘Been vacant for years.’ Elspeth looked at the window again. ‘But there was a boy, a blind boy…’ she said. The woman looked at her. ‘Aye,’ she said. ‘A long time ago.’ He’s up in Greyfriars now, God rest him. There’s some said they’ve seen him. Have oft thought I heard the tapping of his stick, but it’s just an old woman’s fancy, I fear. Anyway lass, you shouldn’t be wandering round on your own at night. You’d best be getting home.’
The old woman turned and went back inside. Elspeth stood a moment longer looking at the darkened windows. She thought of her sister, and of the cure the blind boy had given her. She walked back down the steps, and as she stepped into the road, she heard the unmistakable sound of a piano, but the house remained in darkness.
Tanya Farrelly is the author of three books: a short fiction collection When Black Dogs Sing (Arlen House), which was longlisted for the Edge Hill Short Story Prize and named winner of the Kate O’ Brien Award 2017, and two psychological thrillers: The Girl Behind the Lens and When Your Eyes Close (Harper Collins), both Amazon bestsellers. She holds a PhD in Creative and Critical Writing from Bangor University, Wales, and teaches at the Irish Writers Centre, Dublin. She is the founder and director of Staccato Literary Salon and Bray Literary Festival. Her second short story collection is forthcoming from Arlen House in 2020.