Cold air spilled into the room as the last of the “Ghost Tour” wrapped their scarves tight around their necks and headed out into the Edinburgh night. The remaining patrons watched the door swing shut with its signature high pitched squeal, trapping in the remnants of heat and Whisky fumes. They could tell by the hazy light cast by the streetlights outside that snow was on its way, coming to add another layer to that which had fallen earlier in the day.
The “Whiski Bar” attracted many visitors, standing as it does on part of the “Royal Mile” and had become a favourite stop of the “Auld Reekie” ‘Ghost Tour’, though not many had decided to frequent the establishment on this cold and snow laden Tuesday in December. Only 3½ patrons were left sitting at the bar after the departure of the tour group, the ½ taking the form of Pancho the dog whose maximum was a ½ of Deuchars! Pancho now lay snoring at the feet of Murdo, after his usual tipple and a large amount of pork scratchings which he had scrounged from the tourists by engaging his “Lovable Puppy” look, a look which he had honed to perfection over the last few years.
The other 3 patrons sipped their drinks enjoying the moment’s peace after the hubbub of the visitors. Darren the tour guide had led the ghost hunters around many of the spirit ‘hot spots’ of Edinburgh, regaling them with a mixture of blood curdling and heart rending stories. Darren usually got tipped a few drinks at the end of the night by the grateful punters and he was always sure to share the gains with the regulars in the bar who were always happy to help out with creating a good atmosphere. Tonight had been a good night, Murdo had brought a hush the whole bar as he weaved a story of love, intrigue and mystery, even Pancho had gotten into the spirit of the evening, whining when Murdo reached the darker parts of the story and nuzzling up to the girlies for the love scenes.
Eventually Gordon broke the moment of quiet reflection “I’ve no heard that tale before Murdo, how long have you and Pancho been cooking that one up?”
“I only heard it the other day.” admitted Murdo “I was chatting to the old station master from Waverley, he was telling me that it was an old story handed down by the station porters.”
“They all think the city fathers had something to do with the lassies disappearance. But in those days it didn’t do to gossip about such things. Those families didn’t get where they did without having friends in dark places.”
A general murmur of agreement moved between those at the bar, Pancho just wuffeld as he chased cats in his dreams.
“A few of the lads down there say they’ve seen something though, about this time of year, a few weeks before Christmas, down the end of platform 19, near where the Newhaven Tunnel is. They see a woman looking as if she has just got off a train waiting for a porter to help her with her steamer trunk which is next to her. By the time they get a cart to carry the thing she’s disappeared.”
“You’d think with all these ghosts around the place that there would be no room for the living” chuckled Gordon.
Gordon had only just got back into the city for a few days, he always tried to get back once or twice a year to catch up with the other two for a nip and a pint of the local ale.
He had a love for the city even though he originally came from further north, no matter how long you had been away, you were always welcomed back like an old friend who had only just nipped out to pick up a paper. The city itself had character, from the bright lights of the ‘New Town’ to the dark tunnels of the ‘Auld Toon’, the smell of the hops from the breweries mixing with the scent of spices and charcoal from the Indian restaurants, all combining with the sound of the city’s inhabitants going about their lives.
In the warmth of the bar the friends shared news and stories of what had happened since their last encounter, while outside the snow began to fall, not fast, but large flakes drifting through the orange hue of the street lights. Occasionally the strobing orange beacons of the gritters and the clatter of the salt being spread would penetrate the curtain of white outside of the bar.
Time moved on and Pancho grew bored with chasing cats, he gave himself a shake and decided to see if any customers had mislaid any pork scratchings.
“Jeez will you look at the time” exclaimed Murdo “nearly midnight and on a school night too, Paula will kill me!”
“You must be one of your ghosts by now, with the amount of times she’s threatened to murdered you” chided Gordon.
“I’ll be bringing the tourists in the see a real live ghost and his dog at this rate” grinned Darren “I best be off too, I’ve got the early tour of the South Bridge tomorrow. Grab your hat Murdo I’ll walk doon the road with you.”
Darren swallowed the remnants of his pint while Murdo retrieved Pancho from his attempts to save an errant pork scratching from a dark eternity under the bar. “Are you coming Gordo?”
“Nah I’ll hae another dram before I head off, a 3 Wood should round the night off nicely. I’ll catch up with you lads tomorrow before I go.”
Murdo, Pancho and Darren headed off into the snow, a few errant flakes drifted into the bar as the door closed, leaving damp spots on the wooden floor where they surrendered to the heat.
Turning back to the bar Gordon lifted his fresh glass of Auchentoshan ‘3 Wood’ Whisky and swirled it around watching the amber coloured liquid cling to the sides, letting the aroma drift up to his nose. There were few sensations that could beat the atmosphere of being warm in an Edinburgh bar on a cold night, snow falling, with a glass of single malt Whisky in your hand, at least in Gordons opinion, it was something very hard to replicate anywhere else.
But all good things must come to an end and the last of the amber liquid was soon drained from Gordon’s glass, thanking the barman he headed for the door. Gordon picked up his jacket from the hook at the door, taking a scarf from the pocket he wrapped it around his neck and pulled on a pair of gloves after buttoning his coat up.
Turning right out of the bar he headed up the Royal Mile to where it met North Bridge, turning right again he headed down the North Bridge towards ‘The Balmoral’ hotel.
Centuries before the people of Edinburgh had built bridges to cross the gaps either side of the extinct volcano that Edinburgh Castle sat on, North Bridge was one such bridge. Over time and as the population grew, houses were built beside the bridges soon engulfing them so that it no longer seemed as if there was a bridge there. It is not uncommon to go in the front door of a 5 storey house at street level in Edinburgh, go down 6 flights of stairs only to come out at street level at the rear of an 11 storey house. As the city continued to expand whole streets and communities grew in the warren of cellars and storerooms beneath the houses. The rich living at the top and the poor in the middens below.
Gordon drew abreast the Scotsman Hotel, inside he could see the reception staff wishing their guest a good night as they made their way to their rooms, the hotel had taken over the Scotsman newspaper building after the presses had moved to a new building away from the city centre, leaving the cavernous press rooms to be filled with function suites and their resident ghosts to become tourist attractions.
The building stood on the corner overlooking the last few spans of the North Bridge that remained exposed on their journey across the chasm on the other side of which stood ‘The Balmoral’ with its iconic clock tower. Gordon tried to make out the time on the clock tower through the snow which still fell thickly, a few minutes past midnight, which meant it was a few minutes before midnight. The clock was always set 5 minutes fast to help commuters get to their trains on time in the expanse of Waverley station which sat in the chasm below North Bridge. The only time it was accurate was on New Year eve, set so that “Mons Meg” fired as its hands reached the top of its face.
Stepping onto the bridge Gordon met the first of 17 lamp posts that lined the bridge, 17 lamp posts to signify the 17 ‘Wards’ of Edinburgh, each post stamped with the name of the ward it represented.
The snow had thickened again obscuring the last few lights on the far side of the bridge. Behind him came the growl of a motor and the scraping sound of metal on stone, stepping to one side Gordon let the small snow plough pass him as it cleared the pathways across the bridge, receiving a nod of thanks from the driver who undoubtedly had the heater turned up full in his cab. The little machine was closely followed on the road by its bigger brother, which showered the road and pathway with a layer of salt as it passed.
The fresh salt crunching under his feet Gordon glanced at the first lamppost, “Pentland” was embossed on its metalwork denoting the ward to the South East at the edge of the Pentland Hills. The lamp casting a cone of yellow light through the snow, on the other side of the road its counterpart battled to light the pavement below it as the snow grew thicker. Already the channel cut by the snow plough had a layer of white, the salt barely having an effect on the fresh fall.
Gordon moved on, his boots leaving impressions in the snow that quickly filled in. Another lamppost – ‘Forth’ named after the firth that the city lay beside. Next came ‘Corstorphine/Murrayfield’ just to the west of the city centre where the grand rugby stadium, the home of Scottish Rugby sat.
To Gordons surprise the snow was pulling at his feet, every step sinking a few centimetres, he looked back to the beginning of the bridge and could barely make out the flickering light of the first light, “Flickering..?” he thought, “that can’t be right.”
“Must be the effect of the snow.”
Pushing on he reached Colinton/Fairmilehead, glancing up he saw that this light was flickering as well, maybe the council had changed the bulbs for flickering ones to give a more festive feel to the bridge, now he had to walk twice as far to the next lamppost.
Since there were 17 wards it meant that there had to be a gap somewhere so the city elders had put it in the middle of the bridge, on the opposite side of the road shone a single light on its own, Gordon could not remember which ward it represented and wasn’t about to risk his neck on the snow covered road just to find out.
Like an omen of what could have been a large shadow loomed out of the snow, any noise being muffled by the curtain of flakes, but it wasn’t some huge articulated truck taking a shortcut through the city or a Lothian bus; it was a horse and carriage.
Gordon stopped in his tracks, surely not? Who would have a horse and carriage out on a night like this? Not only that but it only had two small lamps at the front to give the driver some view of the road, a driver who was huddled on his roof top seat, a thick cloak and scarf wrapped around him and a coachman’s hat perched on his head which had a thick layer of snow piled upon it. The horse plodded by shaking its mane to loosen the ice that was forming at the hair ends, its hooves hardly making a sound other than a dull thump, the coach rattled and gave the occasional creak as it rolled by and then it was gone into the curtain of snow.
Gordon shrugged to himself, who was he to judge? He was the one trying to walk through this weather, why hadn’t he taken a taxi from the bar? He would have been in the warmth of his hotel room by now.
Pushing on, Gordon tried to increase his pace, but the snow clung on like glue to his shoes, leaving trails like ski tracks behind him.
Ah! There it was, the next light in the row, he had passed the halfway mark and was now counting down to the other side of the bridge. This light seemed to flicker more than the others, a fact Gordon did not really dwell upon, just assuming that the local council would either repair it or had paid extra for the flicker, they were really getting their monies worth from this one!
He could make out the base of the lamp now and the snow clinging to the shoulder of metalwork where the name was embossed, he didn’t know why, but he reached out a gloved hand to wipe away the snow. The pressure of his hand compressed the snow into the gaps of the letters almost highlighting the name.
For a second time that night Gordon came to a sudden halt.
Hadn’t Pentland been at the beginning of the bridge? He was almost sure it had been, though he had barely paid any attention to it.
Maybe it had been Portobello that was another ward of Edinburgh, it began with ‘P’ but there the similarity ended.
He stared at the letters for a moment longer, maybe that last whisky was kicking in a little harder than expected. Time to move before it caused any more issues.
Again he tried to pick up the pace, the sooner he was inside and out of this blizzard the better. He passed the next lamppost without pausing, this was no time to start looking for irregularities that could be done in the daylight when it was a bit warmer. Secretly he didn’t want find another name that he may have read earlier.
Ahead he could see the penultimate lampposts light, but next to it was a red glow, a single point of red hovering amidst a rose coloured aura.
This was getting weird! Like one of Murdos ghost stories to make the tourists think Edinburgh was full of spirits, or to get them to buy a few more spirits at least.
Moving closer Gordon could make out a figure moving on the periphery of the glow. The red light disappeared in a blink as the figure moved in front of it, a red glow outlined the shape, “Vampires!?”
Gordon shook himself “stop having daft ideas” he muttered to himself “Edinburgh has got a few strange things going on, but vampires isn’t one of them.”
He still gave the light and figure a wide berth as he approached, ‘well you never know!’
He was almost opposite the scene when he realised that it was the coach and horse stopped by the road side, with the driver trying to fix something at the rear, while stood over the light.
He had just started to relax when the coach window dropped down with a slam and a head appeared through it.
A head wearing a large top hat, cravat and wig.
It paused for a moment as it took in Gordon’s appearance, obviously a little confused by what it saw.
Gordon was not unduly phased by the look of the head, if someone was going to travel around Edinburgh in a coach in the middle of the night they may as well dress the part.
“Ummm I say dear chap” said the head “I don’t mean to presume but you are a gentleman of good standing aren’t you?”
Not a question you were asked every day in the city, more like “Spare some change?”
“Well I am staying in the Balmoral if that is any gauge of my standing” laughed Gordon.
The head did not look totally convinced “Well if I have your word as a gentleman that you are trustworthy, I would request your help in a matter.”
Gordon looked round at the driver, half expecting to see him wielding a cosh and about to mug him, but he was still stooped over the wheels at the rear of the coach.
“It would appear that the snow has done something or other to our brakes and my man here is having some difficulty sorting it out.” explained the head “I am due to meet my niece who is arriving on the London train tonight. My brother has sent her up as he has a spot of bother that he wants her kept away from. I would go myself but I took a spear in the leg a few years ago.”
Gordon looked at his watch, it was gone midnight, surely the last train from London had arrived before now?
“Aye, well she’ll be fair freezing by now”
“Would you mind awfully meeting her and chaperoning her until we manage to get down there?”
Gordon was keen to ‘hit the sack’, but even in his state he wasn’t about to let a young lady be stood alone in the cold of Waverley station.
“I’m sure I can spare some time to meet the young lady, how will I know her?”
“My brother cabled to say he had put her in a compartment in second class, she has red hair and is about 5′ 8” though she does tend to wear some eccentric boots. Her family name is Hamilton, the guard should be able to point her out.”
‘Cabled’, ‘compartment’ and the guard should know her? Perhaps he meant emailed, but Gordon didn’t think Virgin Rail had started a personal service with compartments! He wasn’t about to argue, not in this weather at any rate, besides the station was only just down a few steps from the bridge, and the lady was a redhead, Gordon had a thing for redheads!
“Okay then I will escort her to the waiting room, I’m sure it will be a lot warmer in there.
A hand emerged from the coach and grasped the front of the hat as it was tipped in thanks, “We will be along with all haste, thank you.”
Gordon shrugged and started out towards the last lamp on the bridge, the snow had eased off a bit but not enough to see the first lamppost he had passed. At the end of the bridge where it met the corner of the Balmoral Hotel stood the last lamppost, flickering like the earlier lights casting its glow onto the fresh snow. What name would present itself to him this time?
Sliding his gloved hand across the metalwork as he passed the answer was revealed: Gilmerton.
He now passed the South East corner of The Balmoral, the grand edifice stretching up for 5 stories above the bridge and a further 3 below, a few meters on was the side entrance to the hotel. Kicking the snow from his boots he pulled the large wooden doors open letting a gust of warm air sweep out onto the pavement, inside a marble entrance way greeted him, where he was able to shake off his coat before going through the second set of doors.
The corridor was quiet at this time of night as most guests had gone to bed or were holding up the bar which was just down to the right at the first junction he reached. Heading straight on though, he knew he would reach the hotel stairs that led down to the station, giving guests direct access to the platforms without having to go outside.
Gordon had reached the bottom of the stairs and had just stepped through the doors that led into the station.
The figure that had addressed him stood in the corner, trying it’s best to keep warm, a tatty Tam O’Shanter atop it’s head and a faded brown coat, that might have been tweed once wrapped around it. Beside it stood a well-used sack trolley blackened with age.
“Not tonight thanks” replied Gordon “just meeting someone”
The Tam O’Shanter had raised as a pair of beady eyes checked out Gordon’s appearance “no from around here then?”
Raising his eyebrow slightly Gordon looked sideways at the porter, he kept moving though, there was a Redhead in need of chaperoning somewhere.
The stairs had opened out onto a metal bridge that led over the first set of railway lines before dropping down into the main station concourse, the air seemed grey with smoke and Gordon could taste the soot at the back of his throat, a thin dusting of soot seemed to cover most surfaces that he touched. Maybe the cold weather was holding the smoke from the chimneys down, but he couldn’t believe it would be this thick.
As he came down the stairs he could see a few figures still moving around the station at this late hour, a few porters dressed in a similar fashion to the one he had met at the top of the bridge were heading in various directions delivering or collecting packages. A couple of guards stood talking in the center of the concourse, dressed in dark blue uniforms with the Kepi style hats, a couple approached them in search of information, she was dressed in a wide dark red skirt that reached to the floor with a large fur muff wrapped around her. The gent wore a tweed shooting jacket and plus fours with brown leather brogues.
“What the hell?” thought Gordon, he looked around, searching for a camera crew, surely someone was making a documentary or something, where were the sound tech’s, the lighting crews and make up squad?
Nothing, other than a few more travelers dressed in an array of vintage outfits. Was there a convention on in the city?
Darren would have said something, the tour guides would have been getting in on the act and dressing up as well if there had been.
The couple moved away from the guards, having received the information they needed, Gordon started to approach them, waiting for someone to shout at him for getting in the way of filming. The huge arrivals board that dominated the central concourse of the station had disappeared, now there appeared to be chalkboards at the end of each platform with various destinations written on them.
The guards turned to look at him, both of them giving him a strange look.
“Umm could you tell me which platform the London train came in on?”
One guard reached into his waistcoat pocket and extracted a pocket watch, pressing a small lever the lid snapped open revealing the hands of the watch which now pointed to 12:30.
“It arrived 10 minutes ago on platform 19” he indicated the direction with a nod of his head, back the way Gordon had come.
Retracing his steps Gordon saw a sign for platform 19, pointing off to left along one side of the station.
As he turned the corner a cloud of steam and smoke was just dissipating and the red light on the rear of the guards’ wagon was disappearing down the track into the night.
The platform in the direction of the castle appeared empty, turning and looking back down the other way the only figures he could see were two porters pushing their carts in his direction.
Typical! Someone was having a laugh at his expense, sending him on a fools earned, chasing imaginary women.
Spinning back around to leave Gordon caught sight out of the corner of his eye of a white figure in the disappearing steam. A shiver shot up his spine, was he seeing Murdos’ ghostly woman, he slowly turned back to get a better look.
There was definitely someone there, a woman, in a long white dress, with a large steamer trunk sat on the platform next to her.
NO WAY! He thought. That Auchentoshan must be doing strange things to him!
Well only one way to find out, he started to walk towards the figure which had its back to him watching the tail light of the train disappear into the tunnel that ran under the National Gallery building.
As he drew closer he could see that she was quite tall and wore a vintage style dress similar to the others he had seen in the station that night. She wore a fur snug around her shoulders to keep the cold out and appeared to have a hat in her hand ready to keep the snow off when she emerged out from under the station awning.
Gordon’s shoes scuffed on something lying on the platform, he glanced down taking in bits of coal lying at the track side which had scattered onto the platform.
By the time he looked up the figure had turned around to face him, the large skirts billowing out like a model on the catwalk revealing a sturdy pair of high heel boots with black laces.
His eyes travelled upwards, her gloved hands held a black top hat with what looked like a pair of goggles clipped to them, the top of the dress was a tight corset leaving her shoulder exposed. From under the fringe of her copper red hair stared a pair of calculating emerald green eyes, which seemed to penetrate Gordons mind searching out his intentions.
Then her hands moved, drawing smoothly apart, one holding the top hat , the other holding a pistol, which rose to point at Gordon.
“What the hell?” Gordon threw himself towards the wall on his left hand side as the hammer dropped igniting the gunpowder in the priming pan, a split second later he heard the ball rip through the air before smacking into something wooden.
Looking back down the platform he saw the two porters split apart, a smoking hole in the side of the cart they had been pushing.
One of the porters was brandishing a rather sturdy looking leather and wood cosh, while the other sported a wicked looking dirk, “I’ll get the bitch you get that foreign bastard” shouted the one with the knife as he jumped down onto the tracks to gain cover from the pistol. The other, like Gordon was hugging the wall, using the columns as cover in case Gordon decided to draw some sort of weapon.
Unfortunately weapon less Gordon made up his mind quickly, there was no escape back down the platform towards the central concourse as the porters now lay between him and that particular exit. The high wall that he now sheltered against was too shear to scale and on the other side of the railway tracks was the vaulted foundation wall of The Balmoral, leading up past the glass of the station roof to its own roof eight storeys above. Which left the only other route straight up the platform towards the pistol wielding red head.
Turning that way he could see that she had turned to the steamer trunk, thrown it open and was unclipping something from inside the lid, he hoped it was something a bit more accurate than the pistol that now lay discarded by her booted feet and that was intended for the two behind him.
Pushing off the wall he sprinted towards her, behind him he could hear the crunch of the cosh wielding porters shoes as he crossed the patch of coal that Gordon had stumbled on.
Passing another column Gordon spotted a cart with a set of guards’ tools lying on it, amongst them a point lever, a long metal bar with a clip attachment which allowed the guards to switch the points in the station manually if there was a problem.
Snatching it on his way past he kept going, the two of them had a better chance working together rather than separately. He was only a few meters away as she straightened up from the trunk hefting a somewhat larger flintlock rifle.
Behind him he heard his pursuer swear and skid to a halt, presumably seeking shelter behind a column, swapping the point lever to his left hand Gordon held up his right in subjugation hoping that she would understand his intentions.
Pausing for a second she took in Gordon’s offer of a pact before putting the rifle in her shoulder and stepping to her left, her finger squeezed the trigger and another ball rocketed down the rails in the direction of the porter who had tried to sneak up the tracks.
Gordon spun around to face the second porter who had restarted his charge towards him, cosh raised, Gordon let the momentum of his spin and the weight of the lever carry it across his body and upwards to make contact with the cosh arm forcing out of the way and letting him step forward and ram his elbow into the nose of his attacker.
The porter went down blood gushing from his nose and obviously stunned.
“I only managed to wing the other one, we better get out of here before the others come”
Turning toward the voice Gordon could see that her eyes were wide with excitement.
“Others?” he asked
“Oh yes I’m sure the city fathers have sent some “skilled” assassins, to make sure the job is done right”
“Here’s hoping your box of tricks can make us disappear then?”
“Maybe” she grinned.