It was so early in the morning that the light seemed to sting like antiseptic. The boy detective was crossing a tussocky field that slanted radically down, as though Edinburgh was being tipped into Nature. Soon the screen of houses at the top of the field was no longer visible and Blackford Hill was heaped up, frowning shapelessly, in clumps and tufts and boulders overhead. The boy detective joined the path at its base that curved around to Blackford Pond.
Allotments began to straggle along the sunken side of this path. The boy detective felt peculiarly vulnerable, as though somebody might be watching him from the allotments, and so he paused for a moment to reassure himself that he was alone. He took in the tiny plots of scraped land in between grassed walkways, a place where the wind endlessly caressed everything. Here and there stood quirky, fanciful little huts that looked like they would be blown over by a wolf in a fairy tale. The boy detective’s gaze darted about this busy display until he was uneasily certain that nobody else was present. There had been no giveaway flash or movement.
Day had broken by the time that the boy detective reached Blackford Pond. The daylight was painfully wan and cramped and without any gold in it. The trees and bushes appeared oddly washed, as though the night was an arduous laundry cycle from which they had at long last emerged.
The gate to the pond was double-padlocked, but there was some fencing immediately down from it that the boy detective was able to clamber stiffly over. In this enclosed section, a short walkway was laid out presentationally beside the pond. So many park benches lined this walkway that they were almost like a row of seats in a theatre. The boy detective was now creeping thickly down the walkway, listening with a hysterical alertness for any noises up ahead. He repeatedly stopped and hung uselessly on the air. Repeatedly, he had to push himself onwards, as if somehow he had two bodies and one had its heels tied in a knot.
When his vantage-point was crowned with a view across the water, and over all of the walkway, he realised that not a soul was here. All at once he relaxed, with all of his energy hugely dissipating, and then he felt small and cross and cheated. He watched the scene for a while but there was only that haunted mood that you get very early in the morning, when the lights of the world have been accidentally switched on before any of its people are around.
The boy detective drifted inevitably to the water and peered down into it. His gaze came to a stop against some fluffy murk. He looked up at the surface again. Long ripples spread luxuriously from shore to shore, as extraordinarily vivid in the morning light as though they had been carved with a blade in wood.
Then his head was full of frantic reactions that had all somehow gotten glued into an inert mass, like a crush of people that was stuck in a doorway. He was watching the McSweenies walking straight towards him. They were carrying gardening tools and two of them were pushing wheelbarrows. The brothers had all turned their faces to look at him, in a single movement that was eerily akin to that of a bird’s beak veering and dipping. Their faces were suddenly hard and set with the same scornful expression. Deadened faces in which the eyes stared evenly and the mouths had dropped open like small, empty purses.
There was no escape – he had been seen and flushed out of the bushes even before he had any hope of climbing into them. These gigantic men were now fanning out around the boy detective. He remembered to his dismay that there was a scrappy, anonymous-looking path – handy if you knew it was there – that started at a gap in the hedge and ran down to the pond from the main road.
Two or three of these men would have been enough to make a Goliath. With seven, most of them were going spare. They drew around him hungrily, like seven gluttons around one bag of peanuts, roaming lazily but with a sharp, conscious menace in each seemingly casual placing of their feet.
The boy detective waited. He tried to think of something to do or say but his mind was like a match that struck and struck and would not spark.
The men were in a loose circle, pressing in around him but holding back at the same time, relishing what they had been gifted.
The boy detective opened his mouth and closed it. He had to say something – he had to move – before the dread froze him totally useless.
The brothers began to purr pleased remarks to each other. “He’s spying on us, I see.”
“Aye, he is.”
“Aye!” the next answered, in an exaggeratedly jeering way, as though to hitch them up a notch. “He’s doing his fucking Sherlock Holmes – hiding in the bushes, you know, and spying on people.”
“Like with Maw.”
“Aye, you’re right, like he did with aw Maw.”
“Like when he fucked her whole life up? Like that time you mean?”
The brothers stirred and shuffled restlessly. With an airless, piping sound, the boy detective started to sob. He looked around at the brothers, as if from the top of a pyre where he had no chance of anything other than screams being heard.
Then the brother who had spoken last stepped forward, quivering and with eyes that were like black holes to the centre of the world. “They took her pension – you fucking, paki little CUNT.” He strode up to the boy detective and spat fully into his hair.
The brothers gave something between a groan and a cheer. It was half sarcastic and yet leaden at the same time. Next, rather curiously, they were applauding – a restrained, dignified show of approval. The boy detective was pawing ruefully amongst his hair with a sleeve.
Dr Hwangbo had told the McSweenies that he had wanted his garden finished today. He would take the morning off work and help them. They had convened before dawn and he had told them that there was a certain type of nutritional mud that was available only down at Blackford Pond. It could be dug straight from the bed where the water was shallow. Dr Hwangbo knew that the brothers would probably judge this to be merely another example of his occasional Chinese nonsense. It would get them into place when they were needed though.
One of the brothers looked around in a dumbshow, as if he was an imbecile who was having a brainwave. “I guess we should throw him into the pond, aye?,” he suggested brightly.
“Aye, we should.”
“Do you think the little cunt can swim?”
“If not he can learn.”
“Maw has to do without a pension. He can manage in the water.”
In a rush, it had begun. One of the brothers kicked at the boy detective’s shoes and guffawed piercingly. The boy detective was lying amazed on his front, somehow aware that he had grass stains all down his side. He scrambled back to his feet, wiping at himself and trying to stand to attention but they somehow tripped him again. His vision tumbled around the sky merrily like a ball in a game. One of the brothers was condemning him in a hard, throaty voice, but he couldn’t quite make eye contact and the boy detective momentarily presumed that he was speaking about somebody else. Another was gloatingly at the boy detective’s side, sarcastically confiding and offering advice. Again the boy detective heard the word “paki,” uttered quietly from somewhere but with an odd, firm deliberation.
The boy detective heard his own voice pleading to be excused. His chanting quickened and started to pulse and pulse, like a worm in a mindless pattern. He was being walked to the edge of the water. A stone hit him on the side of the head and he was too stupefied to react.
A foot, in a sock and a shoe, was plunged into immobilisingly cold water and the boy detective was thunderstruck. He wobbled perilously on one leg. The world was sliding and sliding.
“Into the water.”
“Yep, get in,” the brothers were crowding around him quick and businesslike. He wobbled to keep his balance and then it hit him that he was really going in. His pleading began again, in a voice so shrill and brittle that it seemed to be issuing from some newly minted being.
And yet next this shrill, alien voice had somehow joined with a distinct echo on the other side of the pond.
All of the brothers stopped. Faintly, Nanny Peters’ voice was coming to them in a kind of microscopic screech. She sounded like an incandescent ant that was hectoring a lion.
“You McSweenies – you stop that at once! Help Amir! Get him out of the water! Now!”
This was a force that had scolded generations of recalcitrant children; that had seen that hands were washed before hot dinners, and that the lights were out not a minute after the advertised bedtime, and that every outbreak of less-than-perfect manners was histrionically squashed. Nanny Peters had known from the first minute that she had met them that the McSweenies were bad children. Dirty, furtive children who were always gathering to confer just out of her earshot and to hide whatever-it-was that they had broken now.
And in return the McSweenies had always respected Nanny Peters. She was hopping mad – she was near to being insanely picky and fussy – but she was not dim, there was that to be said for her. In the McSweenies’ estimation, teachers were, as a class, indifferent or foolish. Their mother spoiled them and they ran rings around her. But Nanny Peters was the lone and strident source of a golden decency that ran underneath all of the haphazard adult world. They revered her, rather as sailors running amok with clubs always harken to the cursing of some moustachioed strongman.
Nanny Peters was coming around the pond, bearing down upon them, her tiny arms jogging almost comically. The brothers stood back, blank with guilt, a wall of shifty innocuousness.
In truth, none of them currently knew where they quite were. If Nanny Peters was back in some kitchen garden over twenty years ago, outraged that an expensive toy had been thoughtlessly broken, so were the brothers. If she had met one of them individually that morning, say in a grocer’s shop, she would have inquired primly about his family and he would have fondly ventured some reminiscent remark. Yet something about this collective meeting and its assortment of circumstances had transported them all back through time together.
Nanny Peters marched the boy detective out of the pond and ducked down to despair over his wet feet. She yanked his shoes off and then his socks, which she wrung out and briefly flapped around in the air in frustration. Then she saw that the brothers were slinking away so she turned to screech at them again. Her voice sounded unusually coarse, as though a normal layer had been peeled off it. They should be ashamed. They had always been bad children. Their poor mother, working herself to the bone, would be ashamed to see them making such an exhibition of themselves.
The boy detective had never had any hope of leaving his house that morning without a baffled Nanny Peters trailing querulously after him. She knew that his detective work had been in the papers – she had admired the cuttings so often as to practically wear out the newsprint – but she had promised Amir’s parents that she would keep an eye on him. And promises, in the moral universe of Nanny Peters, were never broken, cross your heart and hope to die, even if keeping them required an inexplicable escapade up Blackford Hill at five in the morning.
“Home at once,” Nanny Peters determined. “We’ll put your feet in hot water.” She took the boy detective by the hand and the boy detective was too dazed to do anything other than whisper aghast, automatic apologies. “I will speak to their mother… what can they be thinking acting in such… my goodness, Ellen?”
At the foot of the path leading up to the main road, they had surprised Ellen Stewart. She had been apparently trying to spontaneously conceal herself within the hedge. Her body was flattened back against the foliage, like that of a terrified fox, and her nostrils were flared.
“Ellen, is that really you?” Nanny Peters persisted expectantly.
Nanny Peters started to look frail and overwhelmed. First she had met the brothers carrying on up here at this time of the morning, but now the supposedly sensible Mrs Stewart? Her small solemn face peeped up at Ellen, out of all of its goodness and wisdom, searching like a spotlight for the desperate assurance that Ellen was still good as well.
For a second Ellen had reared back contemptuously but as Nanny Peters gazed uncertainly at her, she flinched and shivered.
“Nanny Peters, I… I’m…”
Nanny Peters rallied familiarly. “Are you okay Ellen? I must say, you don’t look very well.”
As Ellen looked around at the pond in bewilderment, panic seemed to rise up to her eyes. “Nanny Peters, I’m…”
Her mouth worked like hands that were trying to frantically stitch clothes out of thin air. Her eyes bulged and her throat tightened. Undeterred, Nanny Peters took a bold step towards her. “Is there anything we can do to help you Ellen?”
In a single, almost writhing movement, Ellen shrank back. “I… Don’t, please don’t Nanny Peters…!”
“Goodness, but we need to help you Ellen.”
“Don’t look at me!”
“Ellen, please don’t worry dear. Don’t fuss yourself.”
“Don’t look at me!” Ellen continued to bark wildly. “Please go, Nanny Peters! Please don’t look at me!”
Ellen managed to break free and she tottered away with her head and eyes lowered. Nanny Peters stared after her in amazement before she resolved to follow, shepherding the boy detective alongside her. On the grass before the pond, Ellen had stopped again, frozen eerily and with her eyes agog.
“Ellen, we can help you…” Nanny Peters called out after her. “Whatever it is, it’s not the end of the world. Maybe we can phone Joe for you? My husband.”
Ellen stared wretchedly at Nanny Peters, her mouth trying to twist words of appeal even as her body was tugging her inexorably away. She glanced up at the gate, as if she was determining to make a run for it. Yet still she lingered, with her eyes beseeching.
A portly man appeared at the gate, looking down at them. When Ellen saw him, she swung back to Nanny Peters with her face white and sick.
“Don’t look at me, Nanny Peters, please don’t look at me,” she gibbered in a mania. She froze again and then she had bolted away towards the man at the gate, with her eyes locked to the floor, and with jerky, springing steps.
At last Nanny Peters and the boy detective were alone beside the pond. And they could hear traffic beginning to flow up on the main road, a noise that immediately broke the spell of all that had happened here.