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Costly Truths (c) Maggie Williams Richmond 2022
Early morning, and the wharves at the port of Leith, enveloped in the haar, are as busy as ever. Fishermen are unloading their catch onto the quayside. Carters hurry to and fro between vessels and vaults, laden with wine, whisky, and brandy. Wagons loaded with sacks of grain from the continent are carried to the local mills. Merchants and mariners huddle together clogging the lanes, bargaining, arguing, haggling, before heading off to the taverns to celebrate their deal. The Water of Leith itself, larger than a burn, smaller than a river, has twisted and curled all the way from its rising in the Pentland Hills, passing through gorges and puddocky shallows. Inhabited by trout, flounder, and grayling, eels and loaches, minnows and sticklebacks, its banks are the haunt of wagtails and woodpeckers, dippers and herons. Widening as it weaves its way past villages, mills, and merchants’ houses, at last it reaches the King’s Wark and the Shore, where, higher and more piercing than the creak of the boats and the chink-chink-chink of the running rigging, hungry gulls scream, plummeting to snatch and gobble whatever the traders and fisher-folk let fall.
More accustomed to anchoring at a mooring a little way out, and shuttling cargo and passengers back and forth in small skiffs, the Oosterschelde, a three-masted square-rigger, is being warped towards the pier. The kedging anchor has been dropped and the crew are pushing the capstan bars round, winding the stout rope tighter and tighter, until they reach the quay and the lines can be tied off. It has taken hours, and Will, pacing anxiously on deck,
can barely contain his anxiety. The Captain approaches him.
‘It is done, mijn vriend. We kunnen let down your broer nu.’
‘He’s still out. Shall I go first?’
‘Ja. The mennen will fix the lijnen to the, what are you calling it, de brancard? Stretcher, ja?’
Slowly, slowly, the inert form is lowered over the side. The crew, well accustomed to loading and unloading crates and cannon, make it look easy. Will, his eyes fixed on the stretcher, holds his breath, and is startled when someone speaks from behind him.
‘Are ye needing a hand, sir? I’ve a cart here for hire? Take ye and yon laddie to the Trinity hospital?’
‘Ach, that’d be grand if you could. It’s my brother.’
‘Dinnae fash yersel. We’ll have him safe there in a trice. Back from yon Netherlands are ye?’
‘Aye. We …’
Will is about to explain, but the carter has darted off, to ensure the crew bring their fragile cargo to the right cart.
Two miles away, wiping her mouth with a damp rag, Geillis Jamesoun tips the foul vomit into the gutter outside the back door, swills out the pail, and replaces it in the corner of the kitchen.
Ugh! This morning sickness is going on and on, she thinks. Isn’t it supposed to have stopped by six months? It did with the others! Mebbe it’s a girl this time and that’s why it’s different. Ah, that’d be nice. Fifth time lucky perhaps?
Pushing her hair behind her ears, Geillis flops with relief onto the three-legged stool by the fire, reaches for a watered-down dram to clear the foul taste from her mouth, and tentatively nibbles on an oatcake. The sweet smoky smell from the peat stack soothes and comforts her. Closing her eyes, she imagines herself back at Ma Mayne’s wooden-framed cottage where she grew up, the uneven texture of the wattle and daub walls, the small movements of the thatched roof, the sounds of the squabs nestling among the rafters, and the chooks squawking in the yard.
Stone may be weather-proof and secure, she thinks, but I do miss the cosiness … and I miss those wee hens … Ach, but there’s no place for a henhouse here at the Tor … aye, and no dinner for me and the boys if I don’t get a move on, and get off to the market!
Glad the battering wind of the past few days has now eased, and tempted out by the prospects of a bargain and a blether the lanes are full of villagers coming through the drab morning. Some hurrying, some dawdling, in ones and twos, in family groups, in gaggles of neighbours, they come along the lanes to the marketplace. No matter the grey skies and the chill in the air, the weekly Restalrig market is like kirk on a Sunday, a ritual not to be missed. Geillis makes her way in the same direction, her shawl wrapped around her plump shoulders, her blue bonnet crammed onto her mouse-brown curls, entirely preoccupied with her worries.
Is my Hendrie safe and well? Does he miss us? Will he come home soon? Is wee Davie settling at school? What scrapes are Jack and Sandy getting into? Is Billy keeping them in order? He’s a good lad, but he’ll be finishing school and looking for work soon. Ach, I hope Hendrie doesn’t cajole him into the army! All Billy wants is to work with horses – he must get it from my dear pa…
With her mind as busy as a hornet’s nest in summer, and her smooth skin pleating into frowns, Geillis fails to see the small signs of spring that surround her, the sparrows fetching bits for their nests, the celandine poking their golden heads through the damp earth, the trees surreptitiously greening. She barely even hears the voices and clangour of the market until she turns the corner into the square.
The morning mist still lingers. It glistens on the grass, beads the cobwebs, and drifts and twines around the bare branches of the trees. Cold droplets fall onto the traders below, busy unloading carts, setting up stalls, putting out baskets. A friendly cluster of alewives banter competitively, leaning on their barrels, sniffing the air. The pungent salt smell from last night’s catch masks the stink of human sweat, sour mounds of excrement, and rotting waste, swirled into heaps by the fierce winds of the past two days. Farmers’ wives stack boxes of cabbages and kale, carrots and onions, balance eggs in precarious piles. The Edinburgh tailors, milliners, and haberdashers display their samples of breeches and bonnets, ribbons and buttons and bows – temptations to lure folk to their shops in the town. A crate of pigeons rustle their feathers and peck-peck-peck against the wicker bars. Old MacMorran halts his wagon, heavy with hessian sacks full of flour from the mills at Leith. Beckoning for a drop of ale, he helps himself cheekily to a carrot for the horse, munched down by the creature in a moment with a snort of steam and the stamp of a great hairy hoof.
‘Ye’re looking mighty pleased with y’self, old man!’ Ma Mayne calls across to him from her stall under the oak tree. ‘Out with it! What’s to do, eh? Are the French come back? Is it the King?’
‘Nay, old woman. It’s not the King. It’s the Queen, the Sassenach Queen. She’s dead!’
With such news to share, the busy, bustling, noisy market is more hectic than ever, an uproar of shouts, cries, and exclamations. Geillis steadily weaves her way through to where Ma Mayne stands by her stall...