Brook Street

Cities have intelligence. Not the people – the bloodstream – but the organs and limbs of hill and river, avenue and crescent. And even cities can have cancers. Brook Street taught me that.

***

My grandad died. I hardly knew him; I was born late, when he was in his seventies. My older brother Fraser paid for us to fly up to Edinburgh for the funeral, and take rooms at the same hotel.

The fifteen years between my brother and I was too great a chasm to encourage intimate sibling bonds. When I was young he’d been like a visiting uncle. A flawless, peerless uncle, whose career moved in a perfect trajectory from school prefect to University to surgeon to consultant. Each rung on the ladder took him further from my level.

We saw each other from time to time. Though there were none of the in-jokes of close siblings, though he was embarrassed by me, though I resented his success and attendant wealth, and though our social circles never converged, relations were amiable enough. But he was a class apart.

“No ambition: that’s your problem,” Dad once said to me. A fair assessment, but I’d known people with ambition, and they were arseholes.

Nonetheless, I’d made it to London; a fact which, for those who live outwith the M25, is assumed to be a kind of success. I had paid employment, and a fixed abode.

***

Grandad’s death was not unexpected: he was almost a hundred. Nonetheless, his absence made us all feel a little more exposed. Meeting the family before the service, it was like a door had closed; we were now on the other side and things were unfamiliar.

He had been a man of achievement: a Professor of History, with an O.B.E. and several publications. His obituary was in both Herald and Scotsman. I had probably spoken to him a dozen times in my adult life. I knew little about him, but I hadn’t even heard of his brother – my great-uncle Matthew – until the funeral.

***

Edinburgh welcomed us with a typically cold, blustery winter morning. I would rather have been inside a crematorium than shivering next to a grave, but the reception afterwards was at grandad’s golf club, where a log fire crackled and popped. It was here, after discussing some current scandal with an elderly woman whose name I hadn’t caught, that I heard about the house on Brook Street.

“You mustn’t think that older generations never broke the rules,” she said. “We weren’t always old.”

Fraser, who had been stripmining the buffet table with his surgeon’s fingers, gravitated towards us with eyebrows raised. He loved gossip: we may only have met infrequently, but I could still have blackmailed most of the staff in his hospital with confidences he’d let slip over a Château Figeac. My companion leaned forward in her chair and dropped her voice.

“Do you know about your great-uncle?”

Fraser nodded.

“Matthew? Fought in the Spanish Civil War, didn’t he? The International Brigades.” Fraser looked to me for verification but I shrugged.

“I’ve never heard of him. Grandad’s brother?”

“The Spanish Civil War is just a story your grandad’s family put about if anyone asked. Matthew wasn’t political. He was something of a black sheep in your family.”

I didn’t look at Fraser. I didn’t want to meet his gaze.

“I knew him at University,” she continued. “He vanished.”

“Ran off?” asked Fraser.

No, I mean he vanished. He was there and then he wasn’t. And he has never been seen since.” She sat up, grimacing. “Could one of you boys get me a drink, please?”

“Water, or…?” I asked.

“A white wine would be lovely, thank you.”

I sidled between conversations to find the drinks table and, despite the throbbing in my bladder, headed straight back to my seat. Her use of the present tense – has never been seen since – unsettled me.

“Thank you. Do you know the house in Brook Street? Matthew lived there, latterly. I don’t remember the number but it was the only proper house on the street; it had a little turret on top. It was fine and handy for his studies.”

I laughed softly at a presumed joke: Brook Street was a nondescript little road, a good half mile from the University, and in no way handy for anything.

“What’s funny?”

It seemed no joke had been intended.

“Brook Street’s nowhere near the Uni.”

Fraser glowered. Indulge her, the look said, but our companion was unfazed.

“You’re thinking of the King’s Buildings,” she said, referring to the 1960s-built campus in the south of the city. She touched the back of my hand gently. Fraser smirked.

“I don’t know if it’s even still standing. He just vanished,” she added, as if the two things were connected. “He studied Mathematical Physics, if I recall. Was quite a prodigy, despite his reputation.”

“What was his reputation; what happened?” I was impatient. Behind us I could sense urgent whispering, and anxious looks in our direction.

“Well, Matthew carried out experiments there. And one time, it all went wrong. And then afterwards, of course, the police wanted to speak to all of us. Quite a scandal in those days. Even for undergraduates, with their reputation for hi-jinks and what-have-you, a brush with the law was not looked kindly upon.”

She looked troubled. The conversation wasn’t going the way I expected. I’d anticipated drunkenness or blaspheming on the Sabbath, or whatever else was scandalous in 1931. What was this, though: fire-raising? Human sacrifice?

“It wasn’t just Matthew. Afterwards…people went looking for him. People disappeared trying to find him.” She spoke slowly now, with a tremor in her voice which hadn’t been there before. “It changed your granddad. He was a few years older; I don’t think they’d been particularly close but…it changed him.”

Fraser and I glanced at each other over her head. He looked agog that this could have been kept secret for so long. So, I expect, did I.

Then, of course, as always happens at such gatherings, someone tugged at my arm, persuading me to be introduced to a relation I wouldn’t have known from Adam. When I could finally make my excuses, I saw our erstwhile companion being bundled into a thick coat and woollen hat by a middle-aged couple. They spoke to her like an unruly child. I made to say my farewells, but her daughter, or daughter-in-law, stepped across my path.

“Ignore Mum,” she said. “Sometimes she says things.”

“Really, she was no trouble at all. It was very interesting, what she was-“

“All the same, she gets a bit confused sometimes. Makes things up.”

Behind, the old woman was shepherded towards the exit. I felt for her but it wasn’t my place – nor was this the occasion – to argue the point. I turned back to hear my Dad’s fishing stories, and forgot about her.

The room had all but emptied when Fraser suggested we take a cab back to the hotel. In the taxi Fraser gave the destination, and added:

“via Brook Street, in Marchmont.”

“It’s in Tollcross,” I mumbled. “If we’re going to split hairs.”

“Brook Street?” The cabbie turned all the way around to look at us. “There’s no Brook Street in that part of town.”

Fraser asked if he had a recent streetmap. The driver reluctantly dug into the glove compartment and pulled out a battered A-Z. Fraser flicked to the index, then to the appropriate page.

“It seems there’s only one Brook Street. In Buckstone?”

“That’s right,” said the driver.

“It never used to be there.”

“Has somebody moved it?” the driver chuckled. Fraser shoved the map back through the partition and flicked the intercom off.

We crawled through rush-hour traffic, and took a few wrong turns – much to the driver’s irritation – before finding Brook Street. The taxi purred in a low gear, as the cabbie let us drink in the sights like tourists.

“I know this street,” I said.

Fraser said nothing, but nodded slowly.

Even in the twilight it was just as I remembered, inasmuch as there was anything to remember. It was a street with little to snag the strands of memory. A few small industrial blocks – all closed down, but the fading signs spoke of carpet suppliers, printers, garages – and a single suburban villa, with a small turret, such as you could imagine being used as a study. I pointed it out to Fraser.

“She didn’t make that up.”

“You gentlemen seen enough?” The driver was eager to be gone.

We sat in silence all the way back to the hotel. Something didn’t ring true. The street had changed little; what had was the neighbourhood. I’d never been to Buckstone; never had cause to go there. I’d lived in Tollcross: much closer to the city centre, but my route to the University would often take me down Brook Street if I was in a hurry. Fraser had lived in Sciennes and recalled Brook Street as being near him, in Marchmont. How could that be?

We agreed to meet later in the bar. The flight back to London was in the early morning, so I packed. Then I had a thought, and asked at reception for an A-Z. The hotel copy was older than the cabby’s, but the castle and Princes Street and the Mound never moved from one edition to the next.

Brook Street, however, did.

It had moved to Blackford, a half hour walk from where we’d just been. I looked at my watch, and asked for a Yellow Pages. I made a phone call and hurried to the top of Leith Walk, and a second-hand bookshop I remembered and which I was relieved to find still in the same place. I pleaded with the owner to stay open a few more minutes, and shortly after was scurrying back to the hotel with a small bag of maps.

At a table in the bar I pored over them in search of this feral street. Then, fingers trembling, I called Fraser’s mobile.

“Look. See for yourself.”

Fraser scanned them as if undertaking an awkward diagnosis. There was a map by Johnston’s from 1905, and a ‘Geographia’ from 1929 which both showed Brook Street running north-west to south-east, and situated just east of the University’s central campus. The next map, by Bartholomew, was from 1950 and in the intervening two decades, Brook Street had been shunted from the city centre, to the edge of the Meadows. By 1964, according to the Ordnance Survey – and who am I to doubt them? – it had skipped the Meadows, gone east, and slotted into Newington. By 1983 it hadn’t moved much south, but a fair bit west, and was a cul-de-sac in Marchmont.

“That’s where I remember it,” Fraser muttered.

Thence to Tollcross – where I knew it – then to the Grange. In fits and starts, the city was squeezing this rogue street further from its heart.

We stared at the maps for the rest of that first drink. By the end of the second, we had a taxi booked and waiting.

***

This driver was less of a smartarse, or else, cowed by Fraser’s aloofness, kept the sarcasm in check. Beyond the clogged arteries of the city centre, glutted with night revellers, the roads were clear. A mere four hours had passed, but the topography seemed to have altered. The city wore a night self I didn’t recognise, so it was a while before I realised that we were circling continuously around a point we drew no closer to. Fraser appeared oblivious, lost in a mobile phone that would have cost me a fortnight’s wages.

“What’s the problem?”

The driver shook his head.

“I don’t know if it’s roadworks, but…”

He was lost; somehow, in a city this small, a taxi driver had got us lost. But to accuse him was a step I wasn’t willing to take. I tried tact instead.

“Is there another way to get there?”

“I’ve tried them all, but…” he pulled the cab over, hazards blinking needlessly in the empty street. “It’s not there,” he shrugged.

“What’s not here?” Fraser was suddenly alert.

“Brook Street. I’m not being funny with you. Look.” He pulled a battered streetmap from the side pocket of the door.

“This is where we are,” he said. Next to a ragged fingernail the northern end of Brook Street was clear. “And this is where we are,” he said, indicating the road. The low boundary wall of a garden stood where, earlier, we had been driven down Brook Street.

“It’s onto us,” I said. An absurd idea, at the time. Now, of course, I know better.

Fraser merely smirked, and asked the driver to take us back to the hotel.

In the bar, we drank almost enough to become fraternal, but by unspoken agreement stopped just short. By morning, the memory of Brook Street was as dull as the sky above Edinburgh. I was glad – relieved – to get out of the city. At least in London the oppressive air is just pollution, man-made and banal. At Heathrow Fraser took the Express; I waited on a grimy tube connection. But for a Christmas card, we avoided contact.

***

Until I received the letter. It was from grandad’s solicitor. In other families, grandparents dote on their childrens’ offspring, so maybe I shouldn’t have been surprised to find myself a beneficiary of the old man’s will, but I was. More stunning was that I’d been left a property which no-one in the family knew he even owned. The house’s gaelic name – Poll Dubh – meant nothing to me, but at the address my heart stumbled: 23 Brook Street, Edinburgh.

I’ve never been one to see patterns or assume hidden connections where none are apparent. But the coincidence was too overwhelming: Matthew occupies – and disappears from – a house on the street in which his brother then buys a property he keeps secret. A house he then passes to me. From one black sheep to another.

Mum was delighted. Now, she imagined, I could come “home” and leave Babylon-on-Thames. Dad just seemed bewildered: Fraser, he told me, had only been left grandad’s golf clubs. Where was the justice?

Fraser, I was pleased to see, exhibited no jealousy; just curiosity. We arranged a trip north, and he organised a tour of the East Lothian links with some friends, to test the golf clubs.

On a bright February morning the solicitor, a Mr Ramsay, handed me a heavy manila envelope. It was full of keys.

“That’s a lot of locks.”

“Unoccupied properties are more vulnerable,” he said. “Your grandad said you would know how to treat the property. I’m not entirely sure of the location, but I got the impression he meant you to upkeep it as he did. As far as I know, however, it’s virtually derelict. Did he have an odd sense of humour?”

“I wasn’t aware he had one at all, but then I didn’t really know him.”

Mr Ramsay nodded thoughtfully. “He’s had it a long time; fifty years. That’s longer than he had the house he lived in. We’d be happy to arrange a survey if you decide to sell it, or even if you wanted to move in…?”

I thanked him without committing. The idea of relocating and making it a home had never occurred to me; not since I saw the address.

But here was a mystery which, but for a chance conversation at the funeral, I would have been utterly unprepared for. Had grandad been listening in? From what little we’d established about Brook Street, I doubted he’d left me the house to raise me out of penury.

I met Fraser and, to demonstrate our conquering intent, we set out on foot. As if ready for us, it seemed Brook Street let itself be found.

The house seemed too solid and bourgeois to be party to the furtive creep across the city’s contours which this thoroughfare was undertaking. But the empty industrial units facing it spoke of a transience which seemed entirely apposite.

I didn’t realise how apprehensive I was until, on the front steps, the envelope slipped from my grasp. We tested one key after another before the lock surrendered. The doorway exhaled the smell of neglect, of dust and damp and decay.

A bare hallway led to the dim interior. All the windows were boarded, and what rays passed through the dirty fanlight added neither colour nor depth. A threadbare carpet covered the centre of the floor; bare boards to either side. We flicked our phones on, the glow from their screens a makeshift torch.

All the rooms were empty, neither furnished nor decorated. Scraps of wallpaper – patterns that were decades old, and had passed into and out of fashion any number of times – draped from plaster that was clammy to the touch. Why had the place never been maintained? It was certainly no shrine, dedicated to Matthew’s memory. More like something from Monopoly, the property purchased simply because it was available, to prevent anyone else from doing so.

I tried to picture it seventy years before, but I didn’t even know what Matthew had looked like, and the squat suburban exterior spoke more of the modesty and self-possession of the 1920s middle-class than it did of whatever black magic, ritual and mystery Matthew had carried out here. The only vanishings I could imagine were of socks, or gardening tools.

The boarded door, then, struck us like an act of violence.

Two huge chipboard panels covered the frame. Whatever we hoped to find, this was the place. The boards had warped with the damp, which gave us space to slide in fingers and prise them off. It took some minutes of tugging and swearing, but they came. A sudden cool breeze chilled the sweat on my back.

Even now, there was to be no easy ingress. Five padlocks fastened the door. Fraser laughed, incredulous. By the blue glow of his phone I tried various keys.

“Mrs Rochester’s going to be one angry lady.”

Fraser looked puzzled.

“Jane Eyre? Mad woman in the attic? No?”

“What are you talking about?”

“Med school, see: no breadth of education.”

“No, no breadth,” he admitted. “Just depth. But if one of us breaks a leg, I’m sure your knowledge of nineteenth-century literature will prove invaluable.”

I undid the final padlock and hesitated.

“Are you nervous?” Fraser’s voice was calm. Fraser’s voice was always calm.

“Yes I bloody am.” I shouldn’t have been: this wasn’t a haunted house, for Christ’s sake, it was mine. It belonged to me, and I had the papers with me to prove it. “Aren’t you?”

In reply, he clasped the doorknob. Then, the first mistake. His own discomfort betraying itself, he pushed the door wide, reluctant to step inside. Behind us, the breeze intensified. The house’s stale air blew past us as if summoned.

Fraser lifted his mobile to cast a spectral light on whatever was inside. Second mistake. I knew something was wrong before he spoke. The phone illuminated nothing. There was nothing in that room: it was like trying to look at the back of your own head. Nothingness. A vacuum.

“That’s…this isn’t right.” His words came out sing-song, like a child in a dream. Then I saw what was happening to his raised hand.

I grabbed his chest, to pull him back. The hairs on my arm began to tug free from their pores, the flesh sucked as if pulling a high-g turn in a plane. Fraser screamed. I hauled him to the floor; warm, sticky liquid spattered my face. I reached for the chipboard panels, trembling hands struggled to slot them into place. Discarded padlocks scraped along the floor towards the gaping doorway. Whatever void Matthew had opened, suppressed for years, was trying to feed. Fraser huddled on the floor, a shrieking foetus.

“My hands! My hands!”

It was horrible. The fingers on that hand were pulled beyond sanity: like some freakish spider crab, the spindly digits twitched and scratched the air in spasms. Blood darkened the thin strip of carpet, whose outer threads were whittled away as the dark tugged at the fabric.

As I lifted one of the panels, the door was torn loose. In the second before it vanished it stretched out, impossibly long for the dimensions of that house, pulled like melted cheese. Even if I could hammer the panels back in place they wouldn’t hold long: and what then? I knew whose responsibility this was. This was my house, wasn’t it? It belonged to me, I who had the papers to prove it. I hauled my sobbing brother to the front door. I could not look at his hands.

Brook Street neither knew nor cared who walked its pavements. But the city cared. The city knew what tumour gnawed away deep inside this unassuming little road, and by peristalsis was squeezing it out. Decade by decade it was purged; forced to the outskirts. And I, appointed guardian, unwilling shepherd, was now bound to follow.

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