Ropa and co will be back in 2022 to uncover mysteries (and, of course, talk to the dead) for the next book in T. L. Huchu’s Edinburgh Nights series Our Lady of Mysterious Ailments.
We revealed the cover for book one, The Library Of The Dead last year and now we’re revealing the spellbinding cover for the next novel in the series PLUS we’re giving you a sneak peek into the novel with the first four chapters!
But first, here is what we can expect in Our Lady of Mysterious Ailments…
When Ropa Moyo discovered an occult underground library, she expected great things. She’s really into Edinburgh’s secret societies – but turns out they are less into her. So instead of getting paid to work magic, she’s had to accept a crummy unpaid internship. And her with bills to pay and a pet fox to feed.
Then her friend Priya offers her a job on the side. Priya works at Our Lady of Mysterious Maladies, a very specialized hospital, where a new illness is resisting magical and medical remedies alike. The first patient was a teenage boy, Max Wu, and his healers are baffled. If Ropa can solve the case, she might earn as she learns – and impress her mentor, Sir Callander.
Her sleuthing will lead her to a lost fortune, an avenging spirit and a secret buried deep in Scotland’s past. But how are they connected? Lives are at stake and Ropa is running out of time.
Can’t wait until next year to check with Ropa? Not to worry, we have the first four chapters of Our Lady of Mysterious Ailments right here and it looks like Ropa’s money troubles are far from over…
So, I’m skint again. ‘Nothing new there, Ropa,’ I hear you say. Well, up yours. This time though, a lass is in luck – Sir Callander, Scotland’s premier magical bigwig, has hooked me up with an interview for an apprenticeship. Free food and a proper wage – all for a wee bit of filing. Yay.
I’m sauntering through George Street in Edinburgh’s city centre, headed towards the East End, and pass a beggar with matted hair sat on cardboard on the pavement, arms stretched out for alms. His trousers are folded and pinned just below the knees, where his legs have been amputated. Must have been a vet during the catastrophe or maybe just some civilian caught up in the crossfire. The bad old days were wild like that.
‘Spare some change,’ he says in a downtrodden voice. Makes me super sad.
‘Sorry, pal, ain’t got nothing on me,’ I say, and it’s a hundred percent true. Been lean times lately, and if I could spare a shilling, I would. I know more than most what it’s like to be skint.
‘God save the king,’ he replies.
‘Long may he reign,’ I say.
I get away as quick as I can, hoping someone with deeper pockets might take pity on the gadge. Used to be, I ran a small business as a ghostalker, delivering messages around the city for the dearly departed, but certain shenanigans which I daren’t recall saw that business go kaput. I went off Sherlocking around Edinburgh to find a missing kid for one of my spectral clients. Have to admit, I was pretty good at it, but it took up a bit of my time, and so I couldn’t do my core job. The spectral community got miffed and I lost a ton of customers. Sigh. It ain’t been easy building the business back up again. But you know what they say, one door closes and all that kind of jazz. This thing Callander’s lined up for me is some next-level shit. Formal employment – who’d have thought a fifteen-year-old lass from Hermiston Slum without no school certificates or nothing like that would get a job with them suit and tie folks? My future’s so bright I might just swap these plastic shades I’m wearing for a welding visor.
I don’t normally dress all formal, but for this, I’ve gone full-on bougee. Found myself a black pair of tailored straight-leg trousers and a beige fitted shirt with long sleeves. Hell, even borrowed myself a pair of Clarks to make sure my shoe game’s proper white collar. My old gig mainly involved tramping around like a postie, so I didn’t need to dress up or anything like that. But for this new one, I read on the net you’ve got to look the part . . . especially for the interview.
It’s a nice summer’s morn, blue skies, not too hot, which is brill ’cause I don’t wanna go in sweating like an oinker. The scent of ground coffee as I pass a cafe before crossing Hanover Street. Big old statue of George IV on a plinth to commemorate the geezer visiting Scotland back when. That was ’cause it had been ages before the king found it fit to visit this part of his realm. Our current monarch ain’t been down here since his reign began during the catastrophe, but seeing as how old George’s hair has turned white with seagull poop, I can’t blame any of his successors for staying well clear of this shithole.
A couple of buskers are jamming acoustic guitars near the church on the opposite side of the road. Their voices carry across loud and clear, covering Dolly Parton’s ‘9 to 5’, and I know that’s got to be an omen. I stop, take out a tissue from the handbag I nicked off my gran and brush dirt off my shoes. This apprenticeship’s really gonna turn my life around. I don’t know how much they’re paying yet, but it’s bound to be more than what I was on before. Means I’ll be able to do more for Gran and my little sis, Izwi. Been a bit rough the last couple of years. Same goes for most to be fair, but once I get paid, I’m looking to get us out of the slum we live in on the outskirts of Edinburgh, into a real house. Then I’ll get treatment for Gran, who’s a bit poorly, and maybe even a better school for sis. She’s the brightest kid this side of the asteroid belt.
With so much on the line, I’m a wee bit feart. Happy and nervous at the same time – nervicited, like that moment before lift-off when the countdown’s going and your dicky ticker’s racing with the second hand. Mad. I check the time on my mobile. Great, it’s only 09.40. Callander said to meet him on St Andrew Square for 10:00, so I’ve got a bit of time to kill and chill my nerves. I’m returning the phone to Gran’s handbag when the ringtone goes off, startling me. It’s only my pal Priya, though, so I pick up.
‘I’ve got great news, Ropa,’ Priya says so loud I might burst an eardrum. ‘Well, not for them, but for you.’
‘I’m all ears.’
‘We’ve got this patient at my work and his case isn’t looking good. It’s been a struggle to make a diagnosis, which is hampering our treatment.’ Priya’s a healer, so I’m not too sure where this is all going. It’s not like I know nothing about doctoring. ‘What we need is a proper investigation into what happened around the time he got sick so we can see if there’s anything we’ve missed. Can you come round to my clinic? His parents are willing to pay you cash for the job.’
‘Sorry, Priya, it’s a no-go for me—’
‘Huh? This gig is right up your street.’ She sounds proper baffled. ‘I thought . . . Is everything alright with you?’
‘Hunky-dory. In fact, I’ve got a new job now.’ Well, almost. ‘Sir Callander’s hooked me up, and so I’m going in for my first day just as we speak.’ I hate to disappoint Priya since she knows I’ve been hard up lately, but I’m sorted now. Or at least I will be after today.
‘You kept that one hush. Damn it, you’d have been the best person for this. After you solved all that drama with those other sick kids. But, hey, congrats. Well done, you. We should catch up soon so you can fill me in on this new J-O-B, baby. I’ll be doing the skatepark in Saughton on Wednesday if you’re about,’ she says. ‘Listen, I’ve got to go – rounds to do, patients to see. Speak soon, mwah – sloppy kiss.’
Wow, look at that, little old me turning down odd jobs. Who’d have thought? I wait for a shilly-shilly ferrying passengers to Leith to pass so I can cross the road into the garden on St Andrew Square. It’s nice and peaceful here, with the scent of newly mowed grass, though the small crescent-shaped pool’s dry at the mo. I sit on one of the concrete bench mcthingies that run along the footpath and veg. That’s a relief ’cause the shoes I borrowed off Marie are half a size too small so my pinky toes are sore.
The New Town where I’m at just now is the nicer part of town, relatively speaking. If you go across the loch to the Old Town, it’s unadulterated mayhem. The only thing kinda marring this side is the pockmarks on the walls of the grand old buildings surrounding the square. Bullet holes. That’s from way back, when the king’s men were going street to street, driving out the separatists from the city into the Forth where a good few drowned. It’s legend out here how in the bleak midwinter of the war hundreds of diehard separatists were lined up on the great Edinburgh seawall with machine guns pointed at them. They were told to swim across the Forth to Fife – a good few miles in freezing water – or take a bullet to the back of the head. Only a handful made it, and to this day they remain His Majesty’s guests in Saughton gaol.
Must have been quite the horror show then. Grown-ups don’t like to talk about them days, almost like they can silence it out of existence. When I was growing up, if someone talked about being in a ‘bullet or breaststroke situation’, you knew they’d been put in an impossible position. This is what makes me a keen reader of books about war. It’s so I can be ready to save my family if shit hits the fan again.
I’m seagulling away, coasting in the moment and watching folks go about their business on the pavements, horse-drawn carts and electrics mingling, plus a shitload of cyclists hogging up the roads like this is eighties Beijing. Nah, Edinburgh’s nowhere near as posh. China – that’s the dream right there. Was a time, once upon, when everyone and their grandma was emigrating out that way, via Hong Kong, but the Great Wall’s been put up again and so we’re stuck here. Still, with the magic gig, there are deffo worse places to be.
I startle and jerk to the left ’cause a man’s suddenly beside me. I look up, and it’s Sir Callander, calmly staring ahead as though he’s been tracking my gaze for a while. A soft wind blows east, and I catch a hint of tobacco smoke snagged in his three-piece tweed suit.
‘Sir Callander, I didn’t see you coming,’ I say, a little uneasy ’cause I’m sure I’ve been spotting everyone in these gardens from my vantage point.
‘No one ever does, Miss Moyo,’ he replies matter-of-factly. ‘You look distinguished.’
I’m taken aback, ’cause Callander’s not normally one to offer compliments. He’s Scotland’s top magician, and a chance encounter with him a wee while back led to this moment right here. But I ain’t a believer in blind luck. No sir, I’ve spent nights up reading posts on prepping for a new job, and so even my pinky toes will forgive me one day when we’re aboard the gravy choo-choo. Callander’s not the type to hand over anything so easily.
‘A position within the Society of Sceptical Enquirers is a much sought-after, seldom proffered affair, which you should take very seriously. You have come prepared?’
‘Yes,’ I say. I ain’t done much else but dream of this since spring ended.
‘And you’ve already fully mastered all aspects of the Promethean spell?’
Piece of cake, that one. I nod. I don’t want to seem too enthusiastic, but inside I really want to burst out, Yes, yes, yes, just get me started on the apprenticeship already.
‘It’s almost time. The others will be waiting. Come with me, Miss Moyo,’ Sir Callander says, getting up.
I’m in his shadow as I follow him out the garden. He’s tall and confident, and moves like a great ship making people part like waves to let him through. I’m bursting with pride, trailing him. This is it, my dream about to happen, and my binoculars are wide open.
We cross the tramlines; hardly ever any trams about, so barring a few cyclists it’s a quick walk to the building opposite. The one with the statue of a geezer and horse in the garden at the front. Dundas House, number 36 St Andrew Square, the main branch of the Royal Bank of Scotland in this city. I’ve never been inside. Never had to. I’m not sure what we have to come out here for, but maybe Callander needs a bit of dosh before our appointment.
The road that runs inside the yard to the building arcs a U for vehicles coming in and out from St Andrew Square. Callander proceeds down the road directly ahead of the main door to the solid neoclassical building. It’s got large windows, straight lines and simple geometric architecture appropriately reeking of money, though the walls are sooted badly from pollution layered over the years.
‘This has been the home of the Society of Sceptical Enquirers for over two hundred and fifty years, Ropa Moyo. Or in other words, the home of Scottish magic. Mark me well, you always slip in via the extreme left of the door so your shoulder brushes against the frame. With your right hand, hold your thumb and index finger together and point the others down to the ground, like this. Arm by your side, palm facing your thigh.’ I mimic him, and he gives a satisfied nod. ‘And remember to be discreet so members of the public don’t see you come in.’ With this, we walk into the bank.
The air takes on a glassy tone. Everything kinda looks slightly reversed as if I’m looking into a mirror. My left is now my right and my right becomes my left, ’cause now we are on the inside.
We’re in this liminal space, a haze-like distortion of reality where everything is almost normal but slightly off. And you can’t quite grasp it, like being inside of the memory of a dream. I sometimes go off into the everyThere, the astral plane, but this is uncanny – it throws you off balance and your body doesn’t know what’s happening to it. Weird. You just sense you’re in a different dimension. At least that’s what it feels like to me. Marble flooring, classical white pillars and elaborate cornices up above showing attention to detail. A golden chandelier adds a sense of opulence to the history already on display. We are within the bank, yet someplace else.
Definitely not the sort of place for the likes of me. But it’s all gravy at the end of the day and I’m getting on that choo-choo whether they want me or not. Hell, I’ll be in the engine room, shovelling coal, if that’s what it takes.
‘Empty space,’ says Callander, sweeping his hand in a grand gesture. ‘I want you to think of hydrogen, the simplest atom of all. If you were to make the nucleus the size of a football, then you would find the electron orbiting some two miles away. Thus, with great effort and skill, Scottish magicians of old manipulated the fabric of this space to fold us into the unseen gaps. This allows the bank and our magical Society to exist and function independently while occupying the same geographical coordinates. If the bank is on the left, we are right. If they sit atop the x-axis, we fall below it. If they are tails, we are heads, the other side of the coin. It’s a powerful piece of scientific magic, Miss Moyo – one few contemporary practitioners can comprehend, let alone dream of replicating.’
There’s slight distortion in his voice compared to the movement of his lips, as though it takes maybe a fraction of a second longer to reach me. A sort of doppler effect, I guess. He halts to let me take it in. A wisp of a customer passes through me like a ghost heading towards the banking hall. While I see them, they don’t seem aware of our presence, so if this were a mirror, it’d be one-way.
‘If you want to truly understand how modern Scotland came to be, you have to understand the history of the bank. And to understand the bank, you have to understand the role of Scottish magic. Once the Society of Sceptical Enquirers and the bank were inseparable. They didn’t just inhabit the same space. And I hope they shall be again so we can regain our former influence,’ Callander says.
I don’t quite get that. What does banking have to do with magic anyways?
Sir Callander holds up his left hand, fingers open, and a second later, a thick grey book appears. Then he hands it to me.
‘Money is power. Learn this well, and take this book back to the Elgin when you’re done with it,’ he says, heading into the main banking hall. ‘There are a lot more resources available to you at the Library, as I’m sure you know.’
I read the cover: Banking in Scotland: 1695 to 1995, by Nial Munro. Seems like dry stuff to me. I wanna master magic and Callander’s drawing me into the world of finance? Zzz. But I’ll give anything a try at least once, I think, slipping the book into Gran’s handbag. I follow Callander, but it’s so awkward moving in here. It’s like I’ve been wired wrong. When I try to lead with my right leg, it’s actually the left that goes first, though my head’s telling me I’m moving the right leg and vice versa. You can forget about chewing gum while doing this.
There’s a big ol’ knot in my stomach as we enter the main banking hall. The imprint of the real bank is still there, shadows of customers and staff moving, the semblance of their furniture. This side of the mirror, though, is an empty room with a man and woman waiting for us in the middle. I stay right on Callander’s shoulder, desperate not to make an arse of myself with this sloshed gait of mine. Back straight, Ropa, don’t slouch.
‘Thank you for agreeing to do this,’ Sir Callander says to the couple.
‘I’ve never been one to turn down a curious proposition,’ replies the man, who’s wearing a golden monocle. Sounds super posh.
‘So this is the girl you’ve been telling us about,’ the woman next to him adds, looking me up and down as though trying to come up with the resale value of a bad investment. She’s pencil thin, all cheekbones and angles, wearing a sharp grey business suit with shoulder pads. I feel cheap in my get-up.
‘Ropa Moyo, meet Montgomery Wedderburn, rector of the Edinburgh School, and this is Frances Cockburn, director of membership services here at our Society.’
‘Pleasure to meet you,’ I say, surprised at the distortion in my own voice.
I hold out my hand to greet them. Firm handshake – that’s what the net told me to do, and I try it.
Montgomery Wedderburn is a striking man, with chiselled features and a prominent Roman nose. He has golden hair gelled to perfection, parted on the right side. His demeanour reminds me of a spider’s web, something so light you may not see it until you walk right into it like a fruit fly. Any delicacy is offset by the fact that the silk web is stronger than steel. His hand is warm and soft. Can’t believe I’m meeting the head of the best magic school in Scotland.
On the other hand, Frances Cockburn is cool, and she meets my firm grip with a vice-like response that turns my metacarpals into mush. Get the vibe of a dung beetle: strong, dependable, forever shifting piles of crap to God knows where.
Wedderburn gives Sir Callander a brief, knowing smile as I step back beside my mentor. I must have done something right already. My nerves lessen a notch, though I’m still on the edge. This opportunity means a lot to me. I’m a secondary school dropout, never been to no magic school or nothing like that, so this is my best shot at making it. Calm yourself, lassie, you got this.
‘Shall we begin?’ Sir Callander says.
‘I’d like to repeat what I told you when you requested this induction. It’s highly irregular for a non-practitioner to be given a role in the Society,’ Cockburn says through thin lips.
‘We’ve already been through this,’ Callander replies with an air of annoyance.
‘You’re right, of course, Frances, but even the librarians agree that as secretary, Sir Callander has wide-ranging privileges established by historical precedent,’ says Wedderburn. ‘It was not unknown in the past for the Society to impress young men of talent, usually the sons of local fishermen with no formal magical training, as storm-calmers aboard ships. And I for one agree that’s analogous to this present situation.’
‘You’re reaching,’ Cockburn replies sharply.
‘It is not up to us to choose the secretary’s apprentice.’
‘Intern. Who “historically” has always come from your school, or have you forgotten that?’ says Cockburn. ‘Yet here you stand, ready to throw away that so-called precedent for this ghostalker?’
The way she says my old job really grates on me. It’s like I’m dirt or something. So what if I talk to ghosts for a living – these guys don’t consider that real magic. They come up with all sorts of highfalutin malarkey to claim it’s less than. My piss is warming up to a boil already, but I keep cool, ’cause I feel like anything I say will be used against me. So annoying.
‘That’s why I was asked to assess if her independent learning satisfies established criteria. By this I mean, at a minimum, Ropa must demonstrate knowledge and skill equivalent to that of a novice pupil attending any one of the four schools of magic in Scotland today. We’ve already been over this, and I see no reason to rehash it. Apologies, Sir Callander, but we really ought to begin.’
The dung beetle’s thrashing about in the web holding it fast. Wedderburn closes the argument, and I could run up and hug him. I’m not used to strangers fighting my corner so fiercely. Now it’s up to me to prove Ms Paper-Lips here wrong – director of membership services, my buttcrack.
My hands are shaking, and I hide them behind my back so it don’t show. It’s easy to feel overwhelmed in this kind of joint. Here I am standing on this plush floor reflecting the sunlight streaming in from the incredible galaxy of star-shaped glasses that adorn the cupola. The intricate finishes show all the things money can buy, the very things I can’t. I don’t blame me for wanting in on this racket.
Sir Callander gives me a wee supportive nod, which buoys me like the jet stream.
‘Ropa, describe for us the theories of magic as you understand them,’ Wedderburn says in a gentle teacher’s tone. I notice how he uses my first name and like him more for it, ’cause it means he’s not so uptight.
Here goes: I’ve been reading up on this stuff all through the spring, so I lay it out the best way I can. I start with the ontological explanation of magic – classic gods and mortals stuff. It posits that the universe we live in was created by a god or gods, or that a god or gods exist within this universe, and their ability to manipulate the material world via a power we call magic is one we happen to share. I waffle about it for a bit then immediately launch into the scientific theory, which allows for an experimentally verifiable and replicable practice. Basically, a magician’s cookbook: put the same ingredients in, get the same results out – voila.
‘The scientific theory is my prefered proposition since it presents the only evidence-based description of how magic works,’ I say, wading into the deep end.
Cockburn wears a haughty sneer, waiting for me to slip up. I don’t let it faze me; even if I was on a unicycle with a monkey on my shoulder, I ain’t about to fall off this tightrope anytime soon. The shadows of bankers and their customers going about their business in the regular dimension don’t frighten me neither.
I break it down, starting with Thomas Young’s famous 1801 double-slit experiment, running through wave particle duality and the implications observations have in quantum mechanics. These effects at a subatomic level scale up to the normal world of classical physics which we live in.
‘And so magic is the conscious excitement of the quantum world by trained practitioners, triggering wave function collapses with verifiable results within the macro world,’ I say, paraphrasing something I read.
I’m ready to go into the other hypotheses – magic as a result of simulated reality and what have you. There’s lots of them. But Wedderburn holds up his hand.
‘That’s a satisfactory explanation, wouldn’t you agree, Frances?’ he says.
Cockburn rolls her eyes but refuses to be baited. It’s like she grows more scunnered by me with each passing minute. Sir Callander remains impassive. The great ship anchored by my side.
‘Your dominie tells me you’ve acquainted yourself with a little practical magic,’ Wedderburn says. His voice is authoritative yet gentle. I reckon he was definitely one of those cool teachers that no one messed with back in his day. The kind who never had to shout or get angry in class since you can’t help but not want to disappoint him.
‘Have you mastered the basics of Promethean craftwork?’
‘Come now, that’s hardly a test of competence. You’ve lowered the bar to slip her through,’ Cockburn says.
Wedderburn puts his thumbs in his jacket pockets, resting his hands on his stomach.
‘I’m required to check she can perform at first-grade level. Anything more would be superfluous,’ Wedderburn replies curtly. ‘Ropa Moyo, show us the spark of your flame.’
I take a deep breath. This is my moment to show them all. Callander had warned me that the demonstration is a critical aspect of the induction, and I’m ready to give it to them. I take my shades out of my breast pocket and put them on. Ball my fingers on both hands into a fist and try to relax my mind. I choose an upper-illumination variant of the fire spell. Here goes.
‘Spark of Prometheus from the fire of Mount Olympus, light the way ahead and shine bright upon this path.’ With that I flick my fingers open, feeling something surge through my being.
There’s a crackle and pop, then a white light appears in the air between us like a lit fuse throwing off sparks. Callander squints and turns his head from the incredible brightness. Both Wedderburn and Cockburn hold up their hands to shield from its brilliance. That’s why I wore the shades. I’m sure they’re pretty impressed ’cause it’s an amazing display. The air has a sharp chemical smell, which is what I’ve come to expect with this spell.
Sir Callander waves his hand, extinguishing all the sparks save for one, which he draws to himself until it’s hovering just above his palm.
‘Well, well,’ says Wedderburn with a knowing smile, looking at Callander. ‘Things just got a little more interesting in Scottish magic.’
‘We haven’t seen an áspro’s colour in a very, very long time,’ Sir Callander replies.
I read somewhere that the shade of a magician’s flame is an indication of their potential to create powerful spells. Like there’s colour charts and gradations running from blue, green, yellow, red, black, white and the unseen flame. There’s shades in-between too. It’s all very complicated stuff, and I’m only just getting the hang of it.
‘Be that as it may, the girl has failed the test. As director of membership services, I cannot admit her on the basis of this performance,’ Cockburn says.
Wait a minute. Like, what the actual hell? I’ve just aced it here!
‘You asked for a spark. A single spark, and what she’s given you is an uncontrolled firework. Potential is two a penny – throw a stone onto Princes Street and you’re guaranteed to hit someone who, with a good education, might turn in a flame. Control, dedication and discipline is what ultimately determines how a magician will fare. So it is with regret I must—’
‘Wait, I can do it again,’ I say.
‘You have already taken your test, young lady. And this outburst demonstrates the sort of loutish comportment we do not tolerate in this institution.’
‘I say we offer the girl a conditional internship with the view to retaking her demonstration at a later date, since she has, in the main, met the baseline criteria,’ Wedderburn cuts in. Callander glowers behind his thick eyebrows but says nothing. I guess he can’t be seen to be interfering with the process, especially since he brought me here.
My bowels sink right to the floor, and Cockburn takes her time mulling things over.
‘If we can’t come to an understanding between ourselves that means we’ll need to get the librarians involved. Do you really want their tribunal telling you how to conduct Society business according to their Rulebook?’ Wedderburn presses.
‘Very well. It’ll be an unpaid internship, since the girl doesn’t fully meet our standards. That’s as far as I am willing to go on this.’
‘Fair compromise. As always, it’s a pleasure doing business with you, Frances,’ says Wedderburn, smugly checking his pocket watch. ‘Sir Callander, we would love for you to drop by the school and give a lecture in the not-so-distant future.’
‘I’ll do that, Monty. And thank you both for your help in this matter.’
‘As for you, young lady, it’s hard enough to become a good magician, even with the benefits of a formal education. I trust you’ll use this opportunity to the fullest, and the next time I do your assessment you’ll have better mastery over your spellcraft. Remember, emotions have nothing to do with it. Let reason alone be your guide.’
My heart’s sunk into the pits as they wind up my interview. I wanna tell them this is a load of bollocks, but instead I swallow hard and keep my gob schtum. Callander’s saying something about how I should return next week to start my new role, but the blood whooshing in my ears muddles up his words. I thought I was getting an apprenticeship and that it came with an actual wage. Now all I’ve got is some crummy, unpaid internship working in a place with Knobhead McPaper-Lips, who obviously doesn’t even want me here. Absolutely scunnered. I swear, story of my life.
Feeling like a right mug as I get home to His Majesty’s Slum Hermiston near the bypass on the south-western outskirts of Edinburgh. Thick black smoke rises off burning tyres in the communal dump close to the M8. I’m passing by the allotments – folks here grow their own grub if they can – when old man Gary O’Donohue rises up from the patch he’s weeding. Gives his back a good stretch and waves at me.
‘Alright, mah wee pally?’ he says.
‘Aye, been a long day.’
‘Yous looking worse for wear despite that dapper outfit.’
My trotters are killing me, and I had to do most of the walk home barefoot ’cause these borrowed shoes are a medieval torturing device. I’m wired and riled, so here I am scowling at Gary, who’s one of the sweetest old geezers in this slum. Stays by himself in a converted container down yonder, so he loves to yak on if he can get your ear.
‘Give this to your nana Melsie, if she’s aboot,’ Gary says, handing me a plastic bag filled with fresh vegetables from his allotment. Brill. I can make us a nice broth tonight.
I take it, thank him and flee, ’cause Gary’ll talk till the cows come home if you give him half a chance. Reckon he’s got the hots for Gran, since he’s always got a wee parcel for her every time I pass by. Gran reciprocates with cooked food or knitwear every so often, but the two of them don’t chat as far as I know.
This whole slum used to be farmland until the first squatters moved in, but now the farmer’s given up chasing us out and instead charges us rent. It’s a bombsite filled with caravans, trailers, refashioned shipping containers, tents, sheds and sheet-metal dwellings. Can get mad out here sometimes, but everyone knows everyone and we look out for each other. More so than the council estate across the bypass.
I get to our caravan and kneel down to say hi to River, my vulpine companion, who lives in a burrow somewhere beneath.
‘Hey there, girl,’ I say when she pokes out her nose.
Used to be River didn’t much fancy being patted or any of that, but nowadays her and me are cool as cucumbers. I give her some scraps I dumpster-dived from the back of a restaurant in the city. My blouse has a few stains from the effort, and it was lean pickings. Not much I could use myself, but I figured River would appreciate the bones and stuff.
Soon enough, I’m up and go inside the caravan. Home sweet home. Gran’s busy knitting but her face lights up and she breaks into a smile when I come in. Her face is brighter than the midday sun and warms me up so much I could melt into a puddle.
‘I met your boyfriend on my way down,’ I say. ‘He’s pretty dashing for an old fogey – even has his own teeth, too. You should have seen him in them dungarees and straw hat he was wearing.’
‘Don’t be silly,’ Gran replies, laughing.
‘Gary gave us a whole plastic bag filled with veg. I’d prefer flowers and a box of chocolate myself, but, hey, your generation did things differently, right?’
‘We even proposed with Haribo rings,’ Gran retorts.
I plonk myself right next to Gran and rest my head against her shoulder. Lord, it feels good taking the weight off my feet. Next I wanna get out of this ridiculous outfit, but that can wait a while. My little sister’s not here. She must be out playing with the other kids nearby.
‘What you knitting?’
‘Oh, this little thing? It’s just a shawl for Linda Lyttleton. She’s not been okay since she lost her bairn in the winter, and I thought this might give her some comfort.’ She holds it up so I can see how it’s coming along.
It’s just like Gran to do stuff like that. Most of what she makes she gives away, but the folks in the slum keep her supplied with enough wool to keep things ticking over. Must be taking turns at the spinning jenny at the rate it keeps coming in. And just like that, I start feeling better already. At least I can veg here with my gran and shoot the breeze without worrying about the nonsense I’ve gone through. I swear if Frances Cockburn’s skinny coupon pops up in my head one more time I’m going to scream.
Gran’s got an episode of Diagnosis: Murder going on our little telly. I don’t know how far in the show’s gone, but it don’t matter none ’cause Dick Van Dyke gets ’em every time.
‘How was your day? Did you get the job you told me about?’
Knapf, that’s the last thing I wanna talk about right now.
‘Yeah, I got the job, Gran. I absolutely smashed the interview.’
What can I say, the damned thing was a train wreck.
Wednesday morning and I’m cycling up Calder Road, feeling all sluggish. Like, who knew humble pie caused this much bloating? I need a bout of blether to get the interview out of my system. Good thing I know just the girl to talk to. There’s the clippity-clop of horsemen headed uptown and the whirr of electrics driving round them.
I’ve got my left earphone plugged in, listening to an audiobook of The Peloponnesian War. Them Greeks sure got up to no good back in their day. I dig listening to stuff like this when I’m about. It’s the only thing that stops my brain atrophying into full-on zombie mode. If there’s anything I can put my ear to the keyhole and eavesdrop on, I’m game. It’s the only method I know of teleportation and time travel too. Do enough reading and you come to realize this world’s been insane right from the beginning.
It don’t take long before I’m in Saughton and make my way into the park. A bunch of neds in jobby catchers lounge on the benches smoking, and I ride right past them. This place is a stone’s throw from Murrayfield, and you’ve got the big prison nearby too.
I brake to a halt at the skatepark, take out my phone and pause The Peloponnesian War. Ain’t dressed fancy no more. Today I’m in my trusty steel-toecap boots, stonewash jeans and a vintage Garbage T-shirt with Shirley Manson looking fierce. I’ve dyed my dreads full-on amethyst but my lipstick is pure Henry Ford; I can wear it in any colour I like so long as it’s black. I’ve also brought my backpack with my mbira in it, though I don’t know why. Habit, I guess. The instrument helps me communicate with any deados bearing messages. Clients are thin at the mo, but a lassie can hope.
The sound of wheels on concrete and the clack of a board hitting the ground. I watch a bunch of skaters doing tricks in the park. It’s like a tempest of rising half-pipes, spine-transfers, vert ramps and handrails decorated with wild graffiti that adds verve to the grey. The best of the art is by some kid who thinks he’s Basquiat and tags his futuristic Pictish pieces with the Crown of Scotland. Compared to this, the rest is by tossers with more paint than talent.
‘Weeeeehey,’ a girl’s voice screams with delight. I spot a wheelchair rising high into the air, flipping a full 360 with a twist, before plunging back into the bowl and hitting the concrete hard.
That’s my girl, Priyanka Kapoor. I cycle over and join a bunch of lads watching her zip through the bowl to the next edge. Her chair rises and she somehow manages to flip, hand on the edge of the bowl with the wheelchair dangling above her. Priya holds that position for a second, frozen picture perfect, and then, suddenly, she’s back in motion, arcing left before righting herself and barrelling down again.
‘She’s blazing today – any hotter and we’ll smell rubber. Did you get that shot?’ one of the lads beside me says.
‘Dinnae micromanage me,’ the one holding a camera says.
Priya takes the next ramp and goes back the way, gaining even more speed till she’s hurtling towards our end of the bowl. Up the incline, she launches into the air, does a double backflip and lands on her left wheel. Precarious like. But Priya maintains her balance and comes towards us with a cheesy grin on her face. Her purple fringe is glued to her face from sweat, but the rest of her silver hair is totally messy after all the tumbling around.
Priya’s a bit of a thrillseeker, hellraiser, you know, that kind of thing. Likes her adrenalin shot in the morning before she gets her coffee. I, on the other hand, had my heart in my gob throughout her routine.
Check out those arms, though. She’s well buff.
‘You should have a go with that BMX of yours,’ Priya says. ‘It’s a great bike, and if you ask Danny nicely, he’ll let you use his workshop to mod it, just like I did with my chair.’
‘You still owe me for that titanium tubing,’ says a goth with oxblood lipstick.
‘I’m good for it,’ Priya replies.
‘That’s what they all say.’ Danny hops onto his skateboard and takes to the bowl, his friend snapping pics.
‘So, Ropa, how’s the new job coming along? Congratulations again,’ Priya says with such excitement my heart sinks.
There’s no way of spinning it, so I come out with it straight. I thought Sir Callander was hooking me up with some sort of paid apprenticeship at the Society so I could actually learn magic. But all I got was a lousy unpaid internship. It’s all down to bloody Cockburn’s sleight of hand, because, as far as I can tell, I still get to do the same thing, but apprentices get dosh whereas interns get shafted. An apprentice pretty much expects to get a job at the end of it all – interns get fuck all. An apprentice comes out with a recognized qualification; all interns get is a kick up the backside. I give Priya the full deets, including telling her what a fanny Frances Cockburn is.
‘Hey, at least you got the gig – that’s the most important thing. There’s people who’d bite your arm off for an opportunity with the Society. Before you, Callander hadn’t taken on an intern since, like, forever, so you should take that as a big plus. Seriously, it’s a coveted prize you’ve got in your hands.’
‘Yeah, but you know I need juicy bacon strips. I can’t live off prestige,’ I say. ‘So, I was wondering if that job you told me about is still on the table.’
Priya grins and says, ‘You’re the first person I thought of. Let me grab my gear and I’ll take you to the clinic so you can see what’s what.’
Our Lady of Mysterious Ailments by T. L. Huchu will be released 3 March 2022 from Tor.