I could never decide whether I liked Edinburgh by night or hated it. All the old buildings, the light of the moon bright and hardly dimmed by the dark grey shreds of clouds – it had an air of mystery, the exciting feeling of living in a world with fairies, unicorns and wizards. But the same sense of mystery also made me shiver. The light of the moon, however bright, did not illuminate the numerous wynds and closes and historic reality took the place of fantastical tales. These streets had once been roamed by grave robbers – or worse those for whom being already dead was optional – the toll booth had been cloyed with the screams of the tortured, and in the streets of the Cowgate the black death preyed in the ankle deep filth, courtesy of crass overpopulation and lack of sanitation.
I suppose crime is not exclusively a thing of the past but the danger seemed more surreptitious back then. I could never quite decide how much of Ian Rankin’s stories to believe either. Yes, I know they’re fictitious and probably embellished but there has to be a grain of truth in the chronicles of Edinburgh’s underground, right? However it may be: these thoughts don’t help anyone alone on the street in the wee hours of the morning. If they’re not drunk enough to still care, people are probably wary of being out at that time in any other city. Still, Edinburgh’s old town’s ancient facades and multi-level maze of non-existent street planning never fail to add some drama.
So there I was, making my way down the Cowgate towards Pleasance, comfortably exhausted from a night at the pub, nothing too fancy. The last of my friends had the luck to have scored a shared flat in one of the courts off High Street and were probably halfway home by now. Yes, that means I was on my own. And after my lengthy prologue you would think it was obvious that that wasn’t a brilliant move. Trust me, by now I have scolded myself for that thoroughly enough. But what’s a broke student supposed to do? If the word taxi has ever been in my vocabulary, it was deleted some time ago and was only ever imaginable if preceded by the word “shared”.
Anyways, I swallowed my uneasy feeling, retreated into my scarf and enjoyed the ever-present fresh breeze. Easter was early this year and spring had only just begun, not quite raising night time temperatures yet. Everything was well till I turned right onto Pleasance. I had only a couple of minutes to go, uphill of course, when I was overcome with a shiver. Bloody maritime climate. I could feel a hint of nervousness coming up and started to walk faster, pushing it to the back of my mind. And so I didn’t slow down when I crossed St John’s Hill and was already on the other side when out of the corner of my eye I spotted a movement in between the towering houses. Against my better judgment (as I thought) I started to run but suddenly froze when I felt something cold touching the back of my neck. It wasn’t so much the feeling of pressure as of concentrated cold that had put me into shock. That, and the realization that the spot was still covered by my scarf.
In hindsight, I am slightly disappointed that he shot me so nonchalantly – I felt the cold, froze, and in the next moment I was staring at the back of my head, a bloody pulp on the pavement. I’d like to think that I deserved better. But then again, I suppose so does every murder victim. Sorry, I am getting ahead of myself. You might be a bit surprised about me being dead and all and will probably want an explanation. It took me a while to realise what had just happened, but that’s probably because it was a bit more personal for me than it is for you now.
So there was me, looking down at myself and I didn’t quite realise that it is me because you don’t usually see yourself from behind, do you, and also your head usually has a back. But the most reasonable explanation was that it was me – and apparently there was a second me looking down on the first one. This second me (which is the one talking to you now, by the way) looked quite like the first one, except more translucent, and I am pleased to announce that I can now answer the ancient question of whether your ghost wears the clothes in which you die with “yes”. Unfortunately that also goes for any injuries.
I probably would have made some more intelligent observations, or thought about how to alert someone to my murder, or probably panicked if at that point I wouldn’t have made the unpleasant experience of being walked through. (Not as unpleasant as being shot, mind you.) The shooter was certainly well built, although the stately impression was noticeably diminished by his lack of right arm. Taking a closer look at the state of him, it was a surprise that he was still alive – but then of course he wasn’t, as I could tell by his translucence, albeit one of a much more solid ghostliness than my own. This might explain why he did not pay me much attention, up to the – incredibly rude – point of walking right through me. Thus, robbed of my life and whatever little purpose that might have come with that, I was left to follow my murderer up the hill and towards the edge of town.
You would have thought this was enough of the uncanny for one day but I couldn’t help feeling like someone was watching me. Not that I had much experience in how ghosts normally feel, but I was sure that there was another… presence apart from the armless hunk who had so rudely ignored me. And the longer this went on, the more I felt I would have actually preferred to be ignored.
So I was not the only one anymore: It had happened again. And I couldn’t do anything to stop him. I had hated him with vigour that had drained me and left me numb and watching my dead body being mourned by my family and friends didn’t help. So I had decided that it was best to accept fate. How much emotional damage could a dead person suffer anyways? So I trotted after my murderer through the streets of Viewcrag and tried to imagine that I was just on an ordinary walk – like a normal, living person. I kept a bit of a distance, although I knew he wouldn’t notice me just the same. I had just followed him into St John’s Hill when I saw her. I did not realise immediately what was about to happen but when he drew his pistol I felt again that horrible chill deep down to my metaphysical bones. She ran, froze, fell. And I felt non-existent tears well up, for the first time since I had watched my roommate pack my things and my parents pick them up from the halls. And then the shame: I should have reacted earlier, stop the monster, warn her. I should have gone then and taken care of her, welcomed her to the afterlife – if that was really it, it had more of a limbo feel to it somehow – kind of like a dead spirit buddy system… But the shame held me back, the sinking feeling that came instead of the tears slowed me down, and so I followed her from a distance as she followed him.
I got to the construction site and the brute vanished, just like he always did at the end of the night. I could tell that the new girl was confused. She halted, shoulders slumped, and after a moment climbed up the scaffolding and sat down on a beam about fifteen feet up over the pit they had started digging out as the foundation of a new apartment complex. I did not want to scare her – God knows she had been through enough that night already – but I was still a wee bit afraid to approach her, so I slowly made my way up the scaffolding, lifting myself up on the beam from behind.
“I used to be terrified of heights. But I don’t think there’s a point to it now”, she said and turned her head towards me. She stared at me for a long second and then looked away abruptly. As she was looking down I felt the sinking feeling again and did the same. Of course she couldn’t look at me, disfigured as I was. When I first looked at my corpse I felt extremely sick and it was still hard walking past something reflecting. It helped that my ghostly self wasn’t as colourful, though. My parents had been advised by the funeral director to choose a closed casket.
“He does this every morning”, I said after an awkward silence, “Climbs down into the pit and vanishes. As if nothing had happened.”
“How long have you been… I mean, did he…?”
“Almost a week ago. You probably heard of it, but they tried to keep the details out of the media; didn’t want anyone panicking. Didn’t help my family much, as far as I can tell.”
“Hmm. He ever talk to you?”
“Not so much as looked at me.”
Tamara was listening to the nagging of deadlines while writing this article.