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The Blessing of Burntisland

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Joe Fairlie is a treasure dowser. As the novel opens, he locates The Blessing of Burntisland, a seventeenth-century treasure barge sunk in the Firth of Forth off Scotland. The treasure of King Charles I has lain in the sea for decades; but so it seems have the spirits of two of the ship's survivors. At his moment of greatest triumph, Joe is assailed by the first of many waking dreams that plunge him into the life of one of the wreck's survivors, the court doctor, Thomas Newbolt, who is the antithesis of Joe. The other survivor is the magical boy, Robbie.In this picaresque novel of possession, Jenny Stanton, formerly a medical historian, shows how the past is both vivid and unknowable. If there are messages in Joe's waking dreams, they are not what he is seeking, just as the messages that Robbie provided for King Charles were ones that he would not hear.Joe finally has a chance of realizing his errors. Before this, however, he has to pass through fire in an exciting, disorienting world in which the past clashes with the present.

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CHAPTER ONE

ePub

As the launch puttered and bobbed across the open waters of the Firth of Forth, I focused my inner eye on my mental image of the wreck. There was The Blessing of Burntisland herself, a barge like a small sailing ship; there were King Charles’s tapestries, silver plate, and paraphernalia; and there was the small matter of thirty unlucky crew and servants who had gone down with the boat. Only two survivors, identities unknown; perhaps surprising that there were any. No life-jackets in those days. Along with the half-dozen salvage crew, I was kitted out with a bulgy yellow number that I found very reassuring.

If I felt a twinge of unease, I pushed it to one side. Concentration was crucial.

My outer eyes were fixed on my pendulum, a honey-glazed ceramic bead the size of a large cherry, dangling from my fingers on a piece of nylon twine. Perched on the bench near the stern, I had developed a sitting sea-jig, my body moving with the boat, my arm and hand increasingly steady. My knuckles were raw from the sea breeze blowing up the firth from the east, but I scarcely noticed the cold.

 

CHAPTER TWO

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Idid consider consulting a doctor, or even a psychiatrist. But what could I say that would not sound crazy? Perhaps I could have saved others and myself a deal of trouble by seeking a cure at that early stage. But later, there was proof these were not mere brainstorms. So, who knows?

I consulted Emma, instead. It was no good turning to my sister Jeannie, Emma’s mum; she was always, unreservedly, on my side, but she called my hunches “superstitious nonsense”. I had inherited my dowsing skills from Dad, as well as some of the insight, or second sight, from Gran, but Jeannie had missed out on both, poor thing. Emma, like her mum, lacked the special abilities, but she had more time for my dowsing and other stories. Plus, she had a degree in history of art and worked in the museum services, in London. Because I’d helped out with baby-sitting when she was a toddler, we had a special uncle-niece relationship.

I phoned Emma the day after my vision of the execution. Early, before she went out to play squash. Where she lives, there are no decent places to go for walks, so she has to throw herself about indoors to keep fit.

 

CHAPTER THREE

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As I approached the King’s Arms through the darkening crowded street, I thanked goodness it wasn’t the King’s Head. My sleep had recently been troubled by glimpses of the execution, alternating with the suffocating experience of struggling under water. The most recent vision, in that glassy lift, had told me that the person through whose eyes I saw these wretched snippets of the past was Dr Newbolt. In some sleeping dreams (as opposed to those accursed waking dreams), I was wrestling with him, trying to see the “magical boy” Robbie. In others, as the silver plate slipped through the water, a severed head slid off, trailing a cloud of blood. Each time I awoke with The Dread on me, I became more determined to keep The Blessing of Burntisland where she was. My plan for the evening’s encounter was not well-formulated, despite hours lying awake wondering what to say. If Alison seemed receptive, I would be as open with her as possible, even risking a hint about my visions or waking dreams. If not, I might resort to making up a scare story about the human remains—an unknown plague—or simply point out that a sunken boat full of bodies was a burial site, not lightly to be disturbed.

 

CHAPTER FOUR

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In my shed, I selected a piece of birch, set my lathe going—a foot-operated model I’d built myself—and let my chisel bite in, shaping the cylindrical chunk into a white pawn. I’d been manufacturing the chess set intermittently over many years, the most enduring of a series of projects to turn to for solace when I needed to rest my mind. With wood-shavings curling up and back across my hand, I mulled over my conversations with Alison James. Since I’d talked with her in the pub, the nightmares had become less frequent, The Dread easier to dispel. Knowing that Thomas Newbolt was on the historical record did not explain my waking dreams, but it appeared to reassure Alison, and now she seemed more disposed to help me.

I stopped my treadling, and the whirl of the spindle slowed to silence. Among all the details Healey and his crew had provided about the wrecking of The Blessing of Burntisland, there had been no information about the survivors. Their names, their identities, had not been recorded. I wanted to know more about that boy. The doctor I could do without. I hated the way I was pulled right inside his mind, aware of his fears, sweating with him on the scaffold, suffocating with him in the deep water. He was arrogant, I could tell that, and worse—a traitor: he’d said so himself. If he’d left the king’s service in 1635, it was likely he’d been on the other side in the Civil War. But I didn’t want to think about Newbolt. The lad was another matter; I felt powerfully drawn to him. I started to turn again.

 

CHAPTER FIVE

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Ihad a very strong hunch as to what Alison wanted; but I was curious about the circumstances. She was ringing me midweek, a few days after our jaunt.

“You’d like to go with me up to Scotland, to see the site of The Blessing of Burntisland, wouldn’t you?” I asked her straight off. I was gratified to hear the little inrush of her breath.

“Joe, if I didn’t know you better, I’d say you were psychic,” she said in her husky mate-in-the-pub voice.

“You don’t know me better,” I reminded her. “Now tell me the why and the wherefore, because you’re asking a lot here.”

“I know I am. But so are you, Joe, with your speculation about troubles in the kingdom if they raise the treasure.”

Alison filled me in on her crisis situation, for that’s what it was, though she sounded remarkably calm. When she’d made a move to delay the permit for the excavation, as they called it, she hit trouble because it was already in the pipeline. Not following these Civil Service bureaucratic twists and turns, I pictured an underground pipe, with flotillas of documents like those paper boats you make at school when you’re bored. I saw Alison’s hand reaching down through a manhole to pluck one of them out of the stream. Next thing, she got her knuckles rapped. Her boss—not her immediate boss, but a bigger cheese, two notches above him—called her in to his office to suggest she take some paid leave. It was an order, she said, not a proposal. In actual fact, they were suspending her with immediate effect.

 

CHAPTER SIX

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As I pushed through the door from the residents’ quarters into the saloon bar I tried to spot Alison, but the crowd obscured the view. The bar was all dark wood and grimy posters on the walls—hard to tell if it was genuinely dilapidated, or a fake-aged job. Still, I sensed a genuine cheerfulness in the dense air, and some sort of expectancy. It seemed to radiate from, or converge towards, a bunch of characters around a corner table. There were five of them in varied shapes and sizes, with plenty of grey in their hair and beards. They were drinking out of pewter jugs, a couple of them had colourful embroidered waistcoats over their baggy shirts, and it didn’t need the collection of peculiar-shaped boxes spilling out from under their table to tell me they were musicians.

“Hi Joe,” Alison called over from further down the room. “I saved you a place.” I struggled through the crowd. She was sharing a table with two strangers. The others were a young man with bushy black hair, and a honey-coloured girl.

 

CHAPTER SEVEN

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Y“ ou didn’t think to ask me first, before inviting them along?”

“They did swap rooms with you, Joe.” “Fat lot of good that did me.”

Alison eyed me quizzically as I chomped through my fried bread and bacon. I’d come down late, no longer queasy, but the bear with the proverbial sore head after my night’s adventures. The others were packing already. There was no point arguing, but it annoyed me the way Alison kept making decisions for me.

I felt better about it when everyone agreed that Zemon and Alison would take turns driving, and I slid into the back seat with Irma.

It was another grey day, and cold too. With Alison driving and Zemon navigating, we took one wrong turn after another. Soon we were lost in a housing estate with high-rise blocks that channelled the wind. Rubbish whirled along the pavements. We passed a row of boarded-up shops. The graffiti was worse than in London.

Letting them get lost was partly revenge for Alison unilaterally taking the others on board. But partly, it was my usual fascination that anyone can fail to read something as simple as a two-dimensional road map. I can read into and beyond such maps; I can tell the location of what’s not marked. For me, the most complex ordinary map is like a child’s crayon drawing compared with what it could be, if we made real maps with all the layers or dimensions.

 

CHAPTER EIGHT

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Mist kept clouding my eyes. Every few steps I had to wipe it away with the back of my hand. I imagined my eyebrows were dewed with droplets, like the scraggly heather growing in patches across the hillside. It was cold enough that at first I regretted leaving my gloves behind, but the gradient warmed me. This was in Edinburgh, but it felt like countryside.

Trudging up the well-worn path, I fell into the rhythm that quietens the mind and allows you to think more deeply. Or to cease thinking altogether if you’re lucky. First I mused how is it that paths like these get so worn. Each single footfall leaves scarcely any imprint on grass, none at all on stone, yet the accumulation wears them away. Then I wondered if the hill that was Arthur’s Seat was tamed or diminished in its soul, by having so many human feet, clad in synthetic-soled boots, tramping up and down its flanks.

But why should I think that a hill had a soul? I’d better watch out for Zemon’s influence. What was it he’d said in the pub yesterday, when he was trying to persuade me to join an unnamed band of New Age types for an unspecified purpose? “Joe, you have a way of seeing into the land itself, through its skin, like an X-ray machine sees bones.”

 

CHAPTER NINE

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What I was proposing carried a high risk of discovery, but if it worked, it might reveal a lot more of the insiders’ view than an open approach. It would rely on the fact that Dr Anderson had neither seen nor spoken to me. One of his minions, a research officer, had contacted the East Anglia University pair who recruited me. I was going to be one of these, Dave Berry, and Alison was acting herself, unsuspended.

I racked my brains for the Edinburgh research officer’s name, while Alison sat drumming on her steering wheel with one hand, the other holding her mobile ready to dial. Roddy somebody. She had dressed for the occasion in a box-pleated skirt of chocolate coloured wool, and a three-quarters coat in camel, which hung open showing a soft jumper in pearly grey. Angora, that looked like.

A tiny knob of gristle from the pie I’d hastily munched for my lunch was jammed between two of my molars, distracting me from Alison’s legs and my memory-search both. They make these funny pies up in Scotland, with the top much lower than the edges, filled with savoury mince, quite tasty and very cheap. This one, from a chippie on the way through Leith, only cost a pound. Alison had turned her nose up at my offer to buy her one, and marched on to a posh sandwich shop. We’d run short of time, after getting lost in the city centre, snarled up in one-way systems and stuck in jams, fuming as we crawled over one of the bridges above Prince’s Gardens. The upshot was, we’d grabbed these snacks and then ate sitting in the car, right there in the car park behind the Naval Archaeology Department, discussing our strategy through over-large mouthfuls.

 

CHAPTER TEN

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The breeze tugged at my hair and beard as I stared down from the quay at the bright orange inflatable bobbing below, with room for maybe twelve people. It had probably as much capacity as the little launch that Healey had used, but sat much lower in the water. Scanlon, the skipper, was showing Zemon the ropes. Or in the case of this boat, the cord that would start the outboard. There was some tarp-wrapped gear lodged under one of the benches.

“What’s that stuff?” I asked Alison, not stopping to wonder why she should know any more about it than me.

“Something Scanlon’s smuggling across the firth?” she replied.

We two had arrived at Newhaven by taxi. The others had been collected a bit earlier by Scanlon in his salt-rusted Citroen. Alison looked rather fetching this morning, in her light grey parka, though not as fetching as Irma in dark green.

Irma brushed past us, and started to climb down the iron ladder to the boat, lugging a lumpy kitbag with her. Her black leggings strained over her knees and thighs as she descended.

 

CHAPTER ELEVEN

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The house above Eden Valley was built for gales, with a stone-shingled roof crouched low over two stories of uncompromising stone. The window frames were painted a gaudy turquoise that, to my eyes, didn’t suit the climate or surroundings. Worse, fresh paint had been slapped on over corroded old paintwork, and was peeling in many places. Weeds bristled from the edges of the gravel frontage where we had pulled up. A child’s bright yellow plastic tricycle lay on its side beside the front door.

As soon as Kirsty opened to our knock, I could tell she hadn’t been expecting any extras, only Zemon and Irma. Her smile was too tight. She was a tall, stringy woman in her mid-thirties, with frizzy hair in a plait, and red hands that she was wiping on a none-too-clean tea towel. Several kids’ heads bobbed about, peeking out from behind her flour-streaked pinafore. In this out-of-the-way place, we must have been the greatest novelty since Christmas.

“Welcome,” she managed. “Come right in now out of that sharp wind,” as though we had trekked across the moors, instead of driving up nearly to the door. Her voice was a surprise: soft, mildly Scots, in a way I knew instinctively to be posh even though I’m no expert on Scots accents. A lot posher than she looked.

 

CHAPTER TWELVE

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If Zemon and Irma hadn’t wanted to see Falkland, Alison and I could have travelled in Kirsty’s ancient Humber, along with the kids. Then, we wouldn’t have chucked our bags in the back of Alison’s car on the off chance we might stay over at the inn, the Stag and Hounds. We’d have come back to Eden Valley, and returned to Falkland the next night for the music, and I’d have taken myself off on my own for my hunt-the-trumpet venture. That way, perhaps I’d have kept it secret, Alison and I wouldn’t have—well, it could all have turned out different.

You can’t know, that’s the truth. It’s merely my hunch that that was the feather in the balance that tipped the scales. But I could not blame Zemon for coming to see Falkland Palace. He had more right than us to be in Kirsty’s car, being as he was her friend, and Irma along with him.

Rose had passed muster at breakfast time, no sign of the malady Kirsty had worried about. Graham couldn’t join the party because of work, but he stayed later than usual after breakfast, to see us off. After I’d thrown my stuff into a bag, I went out to find him having a smoke in the garden. I needed to ask if I could borrow a spade.

 

CHAPTER THIRTEEN

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Istepped up from the spiral staircase, Alison behind me, and emerged into the tapestry gallery. Kirsty was sitting with Rose and Daisy, one leaning against her from either side, on one of the chests. They made an incongruous threesome—Kirsty with her hair escaping in wild wisps from its bonds, and the kids’ jackets bright primary patterns—set against hunting lords and ladies and fabulous beasts in faded blues and greens. Zemon and Irma were leaning against a transom in the window embrasure across from Kirsty, looking like a month of wet Sundays as Gran Vartin would have said.

“What seems to be the trouble?” I asked.

“It’s this fever, she hasn’t a sore throat or any other symptoms, and it’s come and gone. You know she was fine this morning. And now it’s come back again,” Kirsty replied.

I asked why she didn’t get some paracetamol from the chemist’s, or take the child to a doctor if she was really worried. Impatiently, I listened to her explanation, which I could predict in view of the herbs, and the general New Age lifestyle at Eden Valley. She disliked chemicals for herself and her children, she thought they were too “strong” and prevented the body healing itself.

 

CHAPTER FOURTEEN

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We met beside Alison’s Vauxhall, which she had parked near the squat village church, across from the Stag and Hounds. Sure enough, she was dressed in her parka and a dark pair of slacks, but ordinary shoes.

“Haven’t you got proper boots?” I whispered.

“What for? We’re not mountaineering,” she said in a flat voice that discouraged further comment.

Opening the car boot, she took out a sturdy torch for use later. I shouldered the spade like one of Snow White’s dwarfs. We could not enter the castle grounds at night, and anyway we’d encountered that locked door in the boundary wall by the stream, so I’d decided on a wide detour. We pressed on past the church and round the corner by the village green. There was another pub, securely shut down for the night, then a row of cottages whose grey stone looked oddly yellow in the lamplight, while miniature jonquils in one of their window boxes looked grey. Abruptly we had reached the village limits. Another hundred yards, and the street lamps gave out. The soft mizzle of the afternoon had cleared, but clouds still coated the sky. Alison switched on her torch. Where the road forked, we took the right turn, to keep closer to the grounds of the castle. We hadn’t encountered a soul, but I was keen to get off the road as soon as possible. Our appearance would be bound to raise questions in the mind of any moderately sober passing motorist.

 

CHAPTER FIFTEEN

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For the first time since I had located The Blessing of Burntisland, I woke without The Dread springing onto me. I couldn’t immediately remember what had happened, but I felt protected. Then it came to me: the trumpet, and Alison. There was a contradiction there, which I had resolved in the night in a very dodgy way. Perhaps it had been a dream. Meanwhile, I felt randy, and even before I opened my eyes, I swept my arm across the bed to find that warm body. But she wasn’t there. Back in panic mode.

But then I realized where she was; the bathroom door was shut. I also realized I needed a pee. I wrapped the bedspread around myself and tiptoed out of her room and into mine, which likewise had its own small bathroom—shower room really.

I brushed my teeth while I was about it. Nothing worse than a furry bad-breath kiss to kill passion.

I rushed back to Alison’s room and jumped into bed. When she emerged from the bathroom looking lovely and fresh in her silky maroon wrapper, I patted the pillow next to me.

 

CHAPTER SIXTEEN

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Brokesley Street is, as Stepan would say, a funny one, with the Royal London Hospital halfway down, and Tower Hamlets cemetery at the end. His shop was just inside the street, but being off the main road no one came there by chance; only his “cognoscenti”. He had a half-shop, with half of the display window, his instruments all crammed in on top of each other on one side of the partition. Barqa’s florists had the other side. They did rely on passing trade, of course—both hospital and cemetery visitors—unlike Stepan. He also had half the premises above, the top two floors (or one and a half really, for the very top was cramped attic space), with Mr and Mrs Barqa and their seven tiny children in the floors immediately above the divided shop.

There was a drab house-door, set back a little from the street, next to the left-hand shop entrance. I rang the top bell, marked “Divac” and counted slowly to ten, then rang again. Footsteps limped down the stairs, the door was flung open, and a long face with dark deep-set eyes looked out, at first astonished then delighted.

 

CHAPTER SEVENTEEN

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Farthing Lodge, the detached house of Victorian red brick, which Zemon and Irma shared with a motley crew, was on the edge of the small village of Cardington. It was dark by the time I arrived by taxi from the station at Church Stretton. Despite the differences, it reminded me of arriving at Kirsty and Graham’s place above Eden Valley. There was a similar air of genial domesticity inside, and general tattiness as to furniture and fittings. Ethnic music strummed from someone’s CD player in the common room— you could hardly call it a sitting room. There was only one easy chair, but a plethora of cushions, a beat-up day bed or couch, and a painful-looking kneeling stool. Zemon told me to dump my bag there, and led me through.

In the adjoining kitchen, three or four people were engrossed in eating their supper. Irma looked up and nodded a greeting, telling me to help myself. The huge wooden table was laden with half-empty bowls of wholefood, and an array of both clean and dirty plates, no two matching. Perching on a paint-splashed dining chair with a broken leather seat, I scoffed a mixture of bean curry, alfalfa sprouts, roast pumpkin seeds, and brown rice with currants scattered among it. Surprisingly tasty. I could not hold my own in the conversation, which wended around and over me. It had been a long journey. Irma said, “I think Joe’s falling asleep. Let’s show him his room.”

 

CHAPTER EIGHTEEN

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Iwalked around the corner into Stepan’s street. There was something wrong with the way the shop-front glinted in the dull light. Only after I crossed the road and was almost there did I see with a shock the glass of Stepan’s half window shattered in a pattern like a spider’s web, spokes and wheels of cracks, a hole as hub in the middle. A stone, or a bullet? Who, and why? I honestly believe my heart missed a beat. Someone had come for it, was all I could think. A thief who knew about my incomparable treasure.

“Is just kids, wanting make trouble, or maybe a petty thief get his hands on one a my accordion, or mandolin more like,” said Stepan, as he led the way upstairs to his flat. It had happened three days ago, but it might be weeks before he could afford to get it fixed. His meagre insurance would not cover that sort of malicious damage, and it wasn’t the first time. Shatterproof glass was too expensive. His reassuring, sad patter of explanation failed to sweep away the ill-omened greeting of that window; for me, it hung over the flat as a bad dream hangs over the entire following day.

 

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