The Strange Morality of Robins and Ravens
The Strange Morality of Robins and Ravens
Chapter One - ‘You can’t kill a mushroom.’
Outwith its gloomy south western corner Princess Street Gardens are always busy. Even on dreich and gusty days, like this day, the day that changed Edinburgh for good, joggers, footballers, children, office workers, lovers and tourists make their daily pilgrimage to the most dramatic park in the world. Everyone has their place in park life, even, or perhaps especially, those who have dropped off the back of life’s peleton. Alcoholics, homeless, hopeless and the addicted, such as Gerry and Julie, who fit into all those unfortunate categories, make that foreboding south western corner a special place of their own.
A stray football hit Gerry’s left calf. ‘Piss arf,’ he shouted while attempting to boot the ball over the fence to the railway lines. He missed. His foot sliced the ball towards a tree, unbalancing Gerry who near went on his arse.
The ball’s owner laughed at Gerry and shouted, ‘that’ll teach ye, ya dirty minger.’ He scarpered pretty quick as Gerry tried to give chase. The lad had little cause for concern as the unshaven, crazy haired, Gerry might have looked and smelled fearsome but he was a scrawny mess under his layers of dark charity shop coats and jumpers which he wore whatever the weather because whatever the weather Gerry had nothing else to wear. It was a half hearted chase. Indeed, Gerry was incapable of chasing anything but a beer with a dram. Anyway, he had other plans, like the six pack of Special Brew swinging in a plackie bag in his left hand. His girl friend, Julie, laughed at him and called him an ‘arsehole’.
They passed Marvin’s mobile guitar shop always parked just below the art gallery. The rain had stopped and even the sun made a brief appearance. Taking a cue from that slim glimmer of warmth, and from Marvin’s playlist, Gerry and Julie danced to Zombie by Jamie T, while sharing a tin of Special Brew and enjoying the attention from the tourists. A few kids joined in their jig and a gamut of Geordies up on a stag weekend, dressed as Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, performed a robotic zombie-like dance, in front of a group of elderly ladies tapping their feet to the music. Several business men in navy pinstriped suits glared at the antics in condescension and disapproval as they finished their Pret’s avocado and chicken bloomers. A window sticker on Leroy’s van summed life up for Leroy. ‘Dancing looks like madness to those who can’t hear the music.’
Julie removed her grubby wooly hat for applause and in response received a few coins, one Walter Scott and one ‘fuck off ya clatty slag.’ Julie didn’t care, she had long lost her pride the day she gave away her personal choice and her career as a teacher to the hooks of cheap drink.
Marvin bought them a coffee and a sandwich each.
‘Thanks Marvin,’ they both said at once. He always looked after them. Then, they headed on their way to the corner of the park which was spared from this influx of happy park life. In the lee of Edinburgh Castle to the south, the austere Kirk to the west and a shroud of heavy set trees just about everywhere, was a sanctuary for anyone seeking privacy. It didn’t lead to anywhere and even on sunny days the air felt damp and the light dim. There was no reason for anyone to visit, except to get pissed or high on cheap anything, out of sight of anyone likely to care. And if you passed out, even in the lashing rain, the walls that supported the graveyard above were in turn supported by buttresses that provided shelter sufficient for anyone desperate enough to sleep there.
Gerry and Julie were on good form having cashed their weekly brew cheque. Their mood darkened as they arrived in the gloom to be met with the smell of rot and death looming into the frowns and nostrils of their usual happy drinking buddies. The smell clung to their noses and throats like it was something they could more easily chew. Nevertheless, in morbid fascination Gerry and Julie joined the four others, Charlie Hawk, Billy, Mac and Sam, all of whom stood about the corpse in the copse.
‘Yon thing’s fucking minging,’ said Julie, stating the obvious.
‘Aye, I noticed, like. What is it?’ Sam asked, wiping his face with a filthy cuff, as if to rid it of the stench.
‘Looks like a badger.’
‘Didn’t know ya got badgers in Edinburgh.’
‘I didn’t know badgers stank like that.’ Gerry retched. They all continued to look in wonder at its remains. Probably the most exciting thing that had happened down there for a while.
Julie passed the tin of Special brew. ‘Here that’ll take the smell away, Gerry.’
‘You’re a good’n Julie.’ Gerry took a swig.
‘Aye we may get badgers, but what the fuck did that to it? I didn’t ken ye got badger eaten creatures in parks,’ he laughed with a grimace as the badger’s body had been gutted, ripped open and torn apart.
‘A fox?’ suggested Charlie Hawk.
‘How big do you think foxes get, eh Fuckhead?.’
‘A fox would do that, it would, honest like,’ Charlie didn’t convince them.
‘That musta been a monster fox,’ Julie laughed. She ran in circles shouting ‘Monster fox grrrr grurrr,’ laughing so much she couldn’t drink her beer.
‘Don’t you tease me, fecken bitch,’ yelled Charlie.
‘Knock it out you two. Maybe something escaped from the zoo.’ Mac swigged his vodka and Gerry returned the special brew tin to Julie. The rain returned, heavier than earlier, and they retreated to the shelter of the wall overhang.
‘They have big mountain cats in Scotland, maybe one of them’uns come down here.’
‘Like Dick Whittington, ya mean?’ Gerry’s pissing himself laughing.
‘You’re fecken dick head, bastarts,’ shouted Charlie.’ You always have a go at me. I’ll fecken stab ye, arseholes.’ He pulls out a wee pocket knife and jabbed it towards Gerry who laughed even more.
‘Yer making me need to pish myself,’ Gerry wandered off towards the dark corner leaving the others to placate Charlie. Just in case the thirst hit him on his short trip of relief, he stuffed a tin of Brew into his overcoat pocket as he wandered deeper into the trees under the shadow of Edinburgh Castle. He found a spot, rummaged around in his filthy pants, and ‘…ahhhhhhhhh.’ The others could be heard laughing and grumbling about the rotten badger, their voices becoming dimmer as they moved further away from it and as Gerry moved further away from them. Creepy flippen thing he thought. Whatever mauled that was a beast alright. ‘The Beast’, more likely. Gerry shivered at the thought, he hoped it was long gone. He finished his business, tidied himself away, picked his tin out, cracked the ring pull, took a long slug. As his neck bent back to let the liquid in enjoying its calming effect, he closed his eyes. They opened suddenly as he heard branches break above him, a conker hit his head and he staggered back in surprise. Too little too late, for a body crashed through the trees landing right where he stood, flattening him to the ground. Stunned, it took a few minutes for him to realise he was conscious, he crawled out from under the body. ‘Urghhhh,’ he said in revulsion at the mess. He stood and stared for some time in shock. He looked in horror at the blood all over his only coat.
‘Holy shit,’ he said. He repeated the words several times in whispered panic, ‘Holy shit, holy shit, holy shit….’ He glared at the mess. It was the body of a woman. He shouted to the others. No reply. As he thought about going to get them he heard a muffled voice.
‘Bloody hell, yon thing couldn’t still be alive, could it?’ He thought but he should have asked the same question of himself. He shuffled the few feet to the body. He heard the whisper again. Gerry’s mouth goldfished. He didn’t know what to say or do. He was no doctor, but he could see that bloody body shouldn’t be whispering. He looked up to the far away castle walls. Nothing would survive that fall.
He knelt. The face on the body smiled. It was a weak smile, but a happy one. Bubbles of blood formed and burst on the lips of the fallen woman. Gerry reached out to try to reassure her. A whisper again, Gerry leaned in closer.
‘Thank you,’ it said.
‘For what, like?’ Gerry touched the woman’s shoulder.
‘You’ll see,’ she said and it jumped and grabbed him.
He tried to shove her away, his face jammed against her own smashed cheek. Blood from them both smearing together now indistinguishable between each other, in a joining, melding escaping bubbling mess. He managed to push her away, blood and fluid still connecting them in a congealed web, strings of white containing bubbles of deep red. Her eyes slowly shut, Gerry stared in horror. As the strength to maintain that weak smile of hers left the body Gerry felt a cold flush all over like the feeling of goose bumps and pins and needles all mixed up. Then he passed out.
As he did so that scarlet sludge proved to be much more than disgusting mess. It contained a highly organised fungal structure driven by chemical signals, a desire to live and a need to relentlessly execute the role nature had bestowed upon it; the breaking down and consumption of rotting human flesh. Gerry’s body quickly filled with thin strands of mycelium, through his veins and arteries, into his spine, toes, ulna, liver, kidneys, lungs, aorta, his medulla oblongata, cerebral cortex, frontal lobe, hypothalamus, thalamus, his arbor vitae and every subcategory of cerebrum that hadn’t been destroyed by Gerry’s long standing alcohol addiction. There, it teased life back into Gerry’s body, supplying it with nutrients absorbed from its previous host. Gerry was now a new host, one which would be used as a walking food bank, a bank that Gerry would have to replenish with the same type of matter to be broken down, not by Gerry’s stomach, but by mycelium which in turn would repair the tissue taken from Gerry’s own body. Gerry was now for the first time in his existence and death, unique. In the same way that fungi rescued and fed the beautiful blue Voryria flower better known as the ghost flower, Gerry was rejuvenated as if nothing had changed. But Gerry is now dead, Gerry is as much a ghost as that blue flower. He will have many surprises to come but he won’t be half as surprised as the first person he meets when his hunger kicks in. That fungi from the moment it left the corpse of the fallen woman blindly followed its natural course until fully installed into Gerry’s mind. At that point the fungi is a much Gerry as Gerry is Gerry and it will experience consciousness as much as Gerry and that for the foreseeable future is Gerry’s new life experience, living symbiotically with a parasitic fungus, whose last host died twenty years before.
Four things struck Gerry when he woke in a sticky mess and he wasn’t sure which one surprised him the most. The first was that he was alive. The second was the woman’s body, though it remained on his chest, weighed very little. It was light enough for him to throw off with ease. He jumped up in revulsion. The third thing that struck him was that he was sober. He hadn’t been sober in over twenty years. The Fourth, was that his inner voice had changed, perhaps thought Gerry this was because of his unusual feeling of sobriety. The voice was upbeat and seemed to treat him as if he was a third party.
‘Gerry, my lad,’ it said in cheerful manner. ‘Good to meet you.’
Having been possessed by alcohol for so long it was still a shock for it to be replaced by something just as enticing, yet he would soon discover, infinitely more ….terrible?.…awesome?… he would take time in deciding which and never come to a conclusion, because it is nature’s nature to be both wonderful and cruel.
Gerry looked towards the sounds of his increasingly drunk friends and quickly decided that he had to go anywhere but there. He solemnly lay his blood soaked coat over what remained of the woman’s body, climbed a fence, jumped over the other side and ran.
Chapter Two - Spoilsports - Paolo Black
I’m so wound up nervous that I hear the rattling of the black taxi’s diesel engine before the driver blasts his horn. I wave to tell him that we are on our way and go get Nan from the kitchen. She’s all wrapped up in a tartan blanket, sitting patiently in her wheelchair. I smile at her. ‘Right, Nan let’s get you down those steps.’
‘No problem, Paolo,’ she says as I wheel her to the front door of our wee Colonies flat in Gorgie. At the door I help her up off the seat and down the first step onto the landing. She takes the hand rail and with me at the other side we slowly make our way down. There are only twelve steps. It always feels like more. The driver sees us and runs to help Nan into his cab. I fetch the wheelchair from the top and, once Nan is settled, I lift it in the rear with us.
‘Where to son?’ asks the cabbie. His badge says he’s called Paul Phillips, driving Car 67.
‘Sick Kids Hospital.’ I shout through the hole in the perspex screen that separates us from the driver. I find that amusing and involuntarily laugh nervously. The driver swings the cab in a snappy U turn and accelerates north out of Royal Gardens.
Nan smiles at me because I’m laughing for no reason.
‘Sorry Nan, just that, my only ambition today is to take an eighty nine year old granny for treatment in a hospital for sick kids.’
‘That’s not funny,’ she says stifling a laugh.
‘Yeah, I know…Still, it is…’ we both giggle like wee bairns. They’re nervous laughs and I’m more nervous than she is even though she’s the one going for a scan. Her smile, I know, hides everything she doesn’t want me to know. T words, like tumour, therapy, treatments, terminal and terrified. Even though I know what she doesn’t want me to know, I smile back. The taxi stops at a red.
‘You alright son?’ asks the cab driver. I’m in the floppy seat, Nan in the comfy seat, her wheel chair folded against the other side. She shoves yesterday’s Evening Chronicle, that’s been left in the cab, across the seat. I spot an unusual headline reference to a horror film The Woman in Black so I grab it to read while Nan gets her scan. ‘I’m fine.’ I lie. ‘It’s my Nan…’ I shout through a hole in the perspex divider and over the noise of the babbling diesel engine. ‘…she’s got an MRI scan and she’s claustrophobic so she won’t go in the adult one. The kids hospital has a bigger scanner so it doesn’t freak them out. They have a special adult day for big people and anyone scared of small spaces.’
‘Aye, though Nan is just a big kid anyway. Aren’t you Nan?’
‘Don’t you listen to Paolo,’ she’s grinning. She’s always smiling at something no matter what.
‘I think your lad is right, love. You’re a big kid,’ Paul Phillips laughs loudly.
‘Don’t you call me big,’ she snaps. She smiles.
‘Yeah, Nan’s been waiting for nigh on 8 months for a scan. It’s a worry, you know?’ I shout through.
The driver, Paul looks through the perspex. ‘Well, son, you know what they say, if they want to see you quickly in the NHS you really are fucked. So take a wait as a good sign.’
We all laugh at that truism as Paul pulls up kerbside at the hospital and helps us out with the wheelchair. We get Nan ready. I give the chair a wee shove to wind Nan up, the chair rolls forward a few feet and I jolt it stopped. ‘Wow, brakes! Nearly lost you there.’ I wink at Paul.
‘Damn, I nearly got away,’ Nan says. ‘Spoilsport.’
I get money out and Paul tells me ‘It’s on me mate. I was going this way anyway.’
He’s lying. He knows we must have a real problem if they go to the bother of giving an old woman a special MRI day in the kids hospital. Maybe he’s touched at seeing a teenager taking his Nan to hospital. Either way, that’s been my life and I stumble an argument as I can’t live on sympathy. ‘Thanks Paul. It’s a good thought but …
‘Take care you two,’ he jumps in and drives off before I get further. Sympathy doesn’t hurt either, I think.
‘He’s a nice man,’ Nan waves.
I look at the money. ‘Maybe get a pie….’
‘… from Levi’s for tonight’s supper. You read my mind Paolo.’
‘That’s a treat to look forward to. Now, let’s get this scan over with,’ I say as the first heavy drops of rain fall onto the top of my head making me shiver. We stop briefly to let a group of school kids go past. Their teacher shouts ‘Now, boys and girls, what do the wheels on the bus do?’
‘Round and round,’ says a little lad at the front, who begins to sing a little song about bus wheels going round and wipers going swish, swish, swish. He is starkly interrupted.
‘No, Jack they don’t.’ snaps his teacher. ‘The wheels on the bus are destroying our planet. That’s why we’re walking.’ She strode onwards like Mary Poppins towards The Meadows, the group of kids like baby ducks bumbling behind.
‘Awe,’ says Nan as I push Nan towards the door of the kids hospital. Mr Eklefecken, who lives in the Victoria terrace beside the hospital must have the most beautiful garden in Edinburgh, swears at a slug as we pass. He squashes it, satisfied it can do no further harm to his begonias.
I push nan through the sliding doors and into a waiting room which is fitted with tiny seats set against walls decorated with fairies, balloons, superheroes and cartoon characters. Out of context with the happy child decor, the space is filled with large and/or claustrophobic adults in dull clothing and faces too tired to smile, all waiting for their MRIs.
‘Will you look at these miserable feckers. Cheer up,’ she says, far too loudly. We get dirty looks.
I shush her.
She says, ‘What? I haven’t long left. I may as well enjoy myself. No point in boring the tits off everyone else. Eh Paolo? This lot should be grateful to have lived so long. Your mum and dad weren’t so lucky.’
Mention of my parents, dead now five years, still makes me wince. Road accident, bollocks it was, they were run over by an escaping drug dealer. Should have been murder. Never get used to loss you just get used to never getting used to it. I shrug, wishing that I was as positive as Nan always is. ‘We haven’t long left…’, I think. Only Nan could see an upside to that. The words hang in my mind as I stand at the desk waiting for the nurse to log us in. Nan answers all the usual personal questions. Then we wait.
‘You know why we’re called patients, Paolo?’ she shouts.
‘No. Tell me.’
‘Cause you need a lot of patience to go to hospital.’ She laughs too loudly.
The shoulders on a big man to our right jump up and down as he stifles a laugh. ‘Aye you’re right there, luv,’ he says.
Some of the others tut at Nan’s japes. She doesn’t care and I know it’s just her nerves, a face to hide her fear of treatments and diagnosis.
‘Mrs Black,’ shouts a nurse at last.
I jump up and push Nan into a holding room. Metal bits, watches, phones and rings all into a locker. I help her into a hospital gown and push her into the bright, clinically white MRI room. Nan flirts with the radiologist who introduces himself as Alfred as he packs sponges around Nan to keep her still.
‘Oh Alfred, if only I were a few years younger…’
He grins at her.
I take a photo. ‘With all that padding you look like you could play American football.’
‘This’ll take an hour. Do you wanna watch a film, love?’ asks Alfred.
‘Oh yeah,’ she nods.
What do you want to watch?’
‘Have you got Kill Bill?’ she jokes. ‘Or one of those dirty French films.’ She winks at him again.
‘Just child friendly films, Mrs Black.’ Alfred hands her a list of kid’s films.
She tuts, ‘Spoilsports.’ She reads the list and says, ‘Chitty Chitty Bang Bang.’
Alfred sets headphones over her head, presses the remote and Nan disappears into the big donut. I sit on a hard plastic seat behind the machine where I have to stay until the procedure is finished. It takes two minutes before she’s singing.
‘….Chitty Bang Bang, Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, Here there in a motor car, oh what a happy time we’ll spend, Bang Bang Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, my fine four fendered friend….’ Her voice is loud over the noise of the clicks and bangs of the machine. Nan hates having an MRI, even in the big ones. Trapped there, can’t move, tight chest. Even so I laugh at her singing as she has no idea she can be heard. The taxi driver is right, Nan really is a kid at heart.
I open the newspaper I took from the cab thinking, ‘shit,’ that’s weird.
The Woman In Black
Late this afternoon Police were alerted to an apparent suicide at Edinburgh Castle after a woman was observed standing on the battlements of the Edinburgh landmark shouting ‘You can’t Kill a Mushroom,’ before throwing herself off the edge. A subsequent forensic search of the area of Princess Street Gardens below, found remains of a body that has both shocked and confused the pathologists in equal measure and one which will have multiple police forces digging out their cold case cabinets.
Their macabre discovery was of bones carefully covered, as if in an act of kindness and respect, under an old black coat. So little remained that it was only through DNA profiling that the police were able to obtain identification and were only able to do so because the DNA matched a missing person case that is over twenty years old.
Twenty two years ago, Annett Dukesbury, from Faversham, disappeared as she walked home from a night out in her home town pub. A number of suspects had been questioned though no one was ever charged and Annett Dukesbury’s body was never recovered, until today. How and when did Annett Dukesbury die? How did her remains get to Edinburgh? What happened to them in the last twenty two years? Who brought them to Edinburgh? and whose black coat acted as her shroud? These are only some of the questions that remain unanswered. Needless to say investigations are ongoing into The Woman in Black.
Now that’s a story, The Woman In Black. It’s not everyday a headline takes its inspiration from a horror movie. I set the paper down contemplating many scenarios of the demise of poor Annett Dukesbury which leads me to spend the remaining time thinking wistfully about a career of writing in film writing.
It takes an hour for the clicking to stop and then a whirring sound as Nan is slowly spewed out of the machine. The door opens and Alfred returns with Nan’s wheelchair. ‘You’ll be alright love. It’ll take a week or so for the report.’
I stand up at the back and take the chair from the radiologist. I help Nan in and off we go to get her dressed.
‘I was enjoying that wee rest,’ she says. ‘I was in my own wee world.’
We wave thanks to the staff and head out the door for a cab home.
‘He said I’ll be alright.’ She really is a big kid if she believes that. Apart from that optimistic note, Nan is unusually quiet in the taxi on the way back to our flat. Her thoughts probably mirror mine and neither of us share them. I watch her dyed white curls, the false rouge on her cheeks that doesn’t match the pink of her lipstick, and think of the pale transparent skin hidden underneath and I know that I am counting days before she goes.
‘Aye, you’ll be grand Nan,’ I tell her.
‘Aye,’ she says, her mind elsewhere. She whispers, ‘spoilsports’.
I say nothing else. The taxi chugs its way home to 83 Royal Gardens in Gorgie, our heads nodding in unison with the vibrations from the sodden cobbled streets, as if we are both agreeing with all the lies of the day.