2014 - October

Margaret Hare’s Sick Tenants

Image: ‘Heart of Midlothian’ © Neal Fowler. SourceCC License

Author: Elizabeth Leemann

I looked out my bedroom window yesterday morning and saw the Haar roll in. It came down from the sky like a heavy blanket covering the city of Edinburgh. I did not think the day would be different from any other. I had met Burke and his wife several times now and we had become fast friends. They came to visit me that night in my lodging house. I had promised to introduce my husband, Bill.

Once the introductions were made we decided to play cards. When the game was well underway, I realised I had not brought a candle to a client who had requested one. I made my way to his room, knocked and entered. I shrieked loudly when I saw the tenant. He was lying very still in his bed. I stared at him for several minutes, but his chest did not rise and fall with the regular rhythm of breath.

‘What is it?’ my husband said as he ran into the room closely followed by Burke and Helen.

I pointed at the body.

‘My God!’ said Helen. ‘Call the police!’

‘We can’t. If people find out about this no one will come and stay here anymore!’ I said turning back to her.

Burke patted me on the shoulder to soothe my nerves.

‘I think I know what to do, ‘ he said and walked towards the body examining it. ‘Yes, I’m sure they’ll take him. All his limbs are intact.’

We wrapped the body in the bed sheets and the men carried him down the stairs. We had been playing cards for several hours at this point and since card games generally require heavy amounts of liquid to be consumed in the process, the men now struggled with the body. It slipped twice out of their hands as they brought it down. Each time it landed on the wooden floor with a loud thud.

‘Shh!’ I said. ‘you’ll wake the whole house.’

‘These stupid floorboards!’ Bill answered.

I’ll admit the stairs were difficult to manoeuvre, not only because they were old but were in a spiral. Still, I could not help but be angry with the men when, at the top of the first floor, they angled it wrong and dropped it again. The body toppled over itself like a log thrown during a Highland Game and fell all the way to the ground floor.

I heard another tenant groan and a bed creak. We all froze and looked up. Silence greeted us in response. Then, we heard a loud snore. I felt Helen unclench beside me and I wiped my forehead with the back of my hand. We ran down the stairs and picked up the body once more.

The men carried it out into the cold night air while Helen and I looked out for witnesses. I had not been pleased that morning when the Haar had rolled in but now I was thankful for its presence. We made our way out of Tanner’s Close without being questioned by any passers-by, probably because we were hard to see through the mist. The men lifted the body and carried him under the shoulders as if he were passed out after a good night at the pub.

I looked behind us to make sure no one was following. The large black brick buildings surrounding us in the dark seemed menacing in the night. I could vaguely make out the outline of the castle towering above us. The Half Moon Battery protruded from the side of the fortress like a wart growing on a witch’s nose.

I turned my head back to the men who were still holding the tenant up by the arms. Bill was still feeling the effects of his drink. He and Burke zigzagged through the streets, ignoring the fact that the tenant’s feet dragged on the cobblestoned road in a tangled mess.

I heard someone coming towards us and whispered at the men to hide.

‘There’s a doorway over here.’ said Helen.

‘Grab his feet,’ said Burke.

We quickly obeyed trotting towards the side of the street. We shoved the body up straight in a doorway hoping it looked like he was relieving himself.

A young man emerged out of the corner of the next street. I could tell he was a student from the many books he carried in his arms and the scruffy yet pompous look he had on his face. Burke noticed this too and ran out towards him. I tried to yell at him to come back before the student noticed him but it was too late.

‘Excuse me, can you tell me where to find Professor Monro’s office?’

The student gave him directions while the rest of us tried to keep the body up. Bill was not proving very helpful and complained that he needed to relieve himself. Helen held the man from one side while I crouched in front of him trying to push him up with my back. I felt my dark red hat go askew on my head.

The student turned around and looked straight at us. We looked back. I froze mid-shove. I was so stunned that I stood up. I felt the body slip past me and hit the road with a crack. I believe we had broken several of the body’s bones at this point. Helen gave a sharp intake of breath. A tense smile spread across my face as I looked from Burke to the student and back.

‘I don’t think you want Professor Monro,’ he said eying the cadaver now sprawled in heap on the ground. ‘Try Professor Robert Knox in Surgeon’s Square.’

‘Would you mind… ?’ Burke pointed to the body on the ground.

The student looked at Burke, puzzled. Then his eyebrows slowly arched up in comprehension.

‘What? No!’ he said, offended, and stalked off.

‘Worth a try,’ Burke shrugged, looking at me, but I only shook my head at him.

Finally we arrived in Surgeon’s Square and found the Professor’s assistant. He was eager to buy the body from us and gave us a very generous price. Although we were all sweaty, tired (and in the case of Bill, ‘in desperate need of another pint’) we were quite happy with the money.

We made our way back through the streets of Edinburgh and saw a young man dressed in black lighting the streetlights. We walked up the Royal Mile back towards Tanner’s Close. I watched a cat move along the side of a building brushing its tail on the bricks as it went. Burke brought me back down the earth when he turned towards me saying, ‘any other sick tenants?’

Bill and Helen laughed but I stopped walking and looked at him full on. He smiled at me while I worked through the possibilities in my mind.

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