44 Scotland Street: Jeopardy in Mary King’s Close

VOLUME 10, Episode 56: They stopped immediately outside the door.
Illustration: Iain McIntoshIllustration: Iain McIntosh
Illustration: Iain McIntosh

“Listen,” said Angus. “I can’t leave the party just like that. My wife’s still in there and I haven’t spoken a word to the Lord Provost – he is our host, after all.”

The Duke looked anxiously back into the room in which the party was being held.

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“You can return,” he said. “All I’m asking you to do is to help me get away from Marchmont.”

Angus sighed. “All right. I’ll help you get a taxi – something like that. Let’s go.”

They began to make their way along the corridor leading to the stairs. As they did so, Angus looked over his shoulder. Marchmont was still following them, walking fast and with a determined look on his face. Angus nudged the Duke, who looked back too and gave a small cry of alarm. “Oh no,” groaned the Duke. “It looks as if he means business.”

“Let’s run for it,” said Angus.

They ran as quickly as they could down the red-carpeted staircase, taking two or three steps at a time, launching themselves downwards with as much despatch as they dared. As they reached the bottom of the staircase, they saw that their pursuer, eager to match their speed, had tripped on the first of the stairs and taken a tumble. He was now picking himself up, but the delay gave them precious seconds.

“That way,” said the Duke, pointing down another corridor. “Come on!”

Angus and the Duke hurried along the darkened corridor. They ran past several closed doors until they reached a turning; the Duke hesitated for a moment before urging Angus to follow him. “Mary King’s Close,” he said. “We’ll throw him off down there.”

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Angus paused to recover his breath but was encouraged not to linger. “No time,” muttered the Duke. “He’ll be here in a second – just follow me.”

Angus did not argue. The whole situation was so unreal: this cannot be me, he told himself; this cannot be me running away like a delinquent schoolboy; this cannot be me, the portrait painter, the member of the Royal Scottish Academy, the former convenor of the Scottish Arts Club Social Committee, the husband of the anthropologist Domenica MacDonald … the list of positions and roles acquired by accretion over the years could have continued, but the absurd contrast was already made.

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Yet ridiculous though the situation may be, it was still real enough. There was no doubt but that Marchmont Herald was keen to speak to the Duke – presumably on a matter pertaining to heraldry and, Angus imagined, the broader issue of misdescription. Angus was vaguely aware that the Court of the Lord Lyon had a criminal jurisdiction, and that people who used crests or coats of arms without proper permission could be prosecuted by the Lyon Court’s procurator. Angus imagined that fines could be imposed, and perhaps even a sentence of imprisonment in an egregiously bad case, but would anyone bother these days – particularly with somebody like the Duke of Johannesburg who, even if not a real duke in the strictest sense, nonetheless looked like one. Who was harmed by this piece of innocent nonsense?

These were his thoughts as they went down the steps into Mary King’s Close.

“It’ll be dark down there,” the Duke said. “We’ll find somewhere to hole up for a while and then, when the coast is clear, we can nip out again.”

The steps negotiated, they began to run along a narrow, descending cobbled alleyway, part of the whole network of streets and dwellings that had been entombed beneath the buildings above it, now the City Chambers, since the seventeen hundreds. These streets had once been part of the bustling centre of the Old Town but had been sealed off for centuries, preserving the houses and shops much as they were when they were last part of the city’s living heart.

The faint glimmer of light from above that had enabled them to see their way into the beginning of the close had now faded, and they were surrounded by pitch black.

The Duke, though, had a box of matches with him, and he now rolled up the Lord Provost’s letter of invitation to form a rough and brief brand. It was by this short-lived light they saw a room open up a few steps away – a room that had once been a ground floor kitchen or living room for a family in that vanished Edinburgh. At the back of this room they could make out a small area recessed into a wall – an ancient cupboard or storeroom – that the Duke suggested would be a perfect place to hide.

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There was just enough room, and there was just enough time to conceal themselves within the cupboard before they heard the sound of approaching footsteps – and the low rumble of voices.

“Two of them,” whispered the Duke. “He probably went off to fetch Unicorn.”

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Angus shivered. “I think they’ve got hold of a torch,” he said under his breath. He had seen a light play across a wall and then disappear into the darkness.

“It’s a long time since I hid anywhere,” whispered the Duke. “I think I was a teenager.”

Angus, also whispering, replied, “Surely it’s a bit late to be playing hide and seek when one’s a teenager?”

“Not hide and seek,” said the Duke. “Sardines. That’s a great game for teenagers. A couple of people go off and hide somewhere in the house and then everybody else creeps around until they find them. Then they join them in their hiding place – getting as close as possible – hence the name – until eventually they’re all hiding together and the last person turns up. The last person to find them loses.”

Angus remembered. He had played that once when he was sixteen. He had found himself hiding with a girl and had hoped that nobody would discover them. That was so long ago, when everything was so fresh, so unsullied, so innocent – well, not entirely innocent.