‘He had only come to appreciate how much he missed Edinburgh once he had committed to return, and if he had doubts as to the wisdom of his decision, they were blown away like steam as his eyes lit upon the door to 52 Queen Street’
Extract taken from The Art of Dying
By Ambrose Parry
Published by Canongate Books
There was a bite in the breeze as Raven climbed from the carriage and hefted his bags down to the pavement. Late autumn in Edinburgh. He permitted himself a wry smile at its chilly embrace, like a welcome home from a relative with a grudge. Its teeth were not so sharp as they once felt, however. He used to think that the wind off the Forth was a cruel presence. That was before he had felt the gusts that whipped along the Danube.
The familiarity of the city’s sights and smells was heartening. He had only come to appreciate how much he missed Edinburgh once he had committed to return, and if he had doubts as to the wisdom of his decision, they were blown away like steam as his eyes lit upon the door to 52 Queen Street.
How vividly he recalled the first time he came here. He had been unconscionably late, dishevelled in his worn and grubby clothes, and sporting a recently sutured wound upon his face. He raised his hand to his left cheek in a semi-reflexive action, his index finger tracing the length of the scar. He thought of the individual responsible for it but quickly put that ugly visage from his mind. It was said the best revenge is living well, and he was certain their respective fortunes would have been satisfyingly divergent in the time that had passed. Raven had left that world behind, while his assailant was no doubt utterly mired there, if he still lived at all.
His facial disfigurement aside, he felt his appearance to be considerably improved since he first presented himself here. His wardrobe, like his travels, had been financed largely by the involuntary contribution of another gentleman, late of this parish, who had no need of luxuries where he had ended up. His clothes were new, tailored to fit, and his boots were polished to a high shine. He wondered if he would be recognised, so complete was his transformation.
When Raven had first seen it, 52 Queen Street had represented a route to wealth and renown, his aspirations filled with aristocratic patients and their hefty fees. Professor Simpson had shown him what it truly meant to be a doctor. This house and those who lived there had been the making of him, had saved him from himself. Now that he had returned, he wanted to show them all how he had flourished.
He paused on the front step, trying to anticipate the changes he would find inside, conscious that things were unlikely to be as he had left them. He remembered with a mixture of fondness and exasperation the gallimaufry of messy humanity which was often to be found behind this door. The personality of its owner was stamped upon the place from the attic to the basement. It was warm, cheerful, bustling, challenging and inspiring; but it could also be chaotic, confounding, fraught, thrawn and downright overwhelming. There were animals running loose, children running looser, patients spilling out of doorways, staff scrambling to accommodate the guests invited upon a whim of the professor, and somehow amidst it all had been made a discovery that changed the world.
As he rang the bell, he thought about who might answer, the faces he was about to see. He thought about Jarvis, Simpson’s redoubtable butler, whose very politeness towards Raven was itself a means of conveying how much he would like to turn him out onto the street for a wretch. He thought about Mrs Simpson, perpetually in mourning for the young children she had lost and vigilantly dedicated to the care of those who survived. He thought of her unmarried sister, Mina, left heartbroken after she mistakenly believed her search for a husband had finally come to a happy end. Foremost in his thoughts, however, was Simpson’s housemaid, Sarah Fisher.
Hers was the image he had most tried to conjure throughout his travels: her pale complexion, her honey-coloured hair, the soft touch of her hand as she administered ointment of her own making to salve his wound. He remembered the smell of her – lavender and fresh linen – the way she carried herself, her smile. He remembered also her withering disdain, her sharp intelligence and her tendency to let her frustrations talk her into trouble. Most of all he remembered the kisses they had shared, the swell of feelings he had not known around a woman before – or since.
He shook his head in an attempt to clear his mind. Such reminiscences had been in equal parts a comfort and a torment over the past year. They had been thrown together by circumstance, but propriety dictated that to pursue any kind of relationship would have been damaging to both of them. There had been no contact between them since he left. Deliberately so. He had written letters to her during his time in Paris, and again in Vienna, but they had never been sent. He was a doctor, a physician. She was a housemaid. Anything other than a professional relationship was surely out of the question. What possible future could there have been for them? None that he could see. He had tried to explain as much to her before he left, but she had been reluctant to accept the intractable realities before them; strong-willed and argumentative to the last.
He had been sure that a period of separation would cool his ardour for her, and there had been interludes during his travels when she seemed far distant in time as well as space; a treasured step on his journey, but one he had been ever progressing away from. However, as he stood on the doorstep, he was conscious of an increase in his heart rate, an excitement of the body in defiance of anything his mind might wish to deny.
It was more than an excitement: it was a longing. And the closer he drew to seeing her again, the more imperative that longing became.
He was therefore quite unprepared when it was not Sarah but another young woman who answered the door.
‘Can I help you, sir?’ she asked, peering up at him from beneath her cap.
‘Yes. I am Dr Will Raven, the professor’s new assistant.’
Raven’s pride in being able to announce himself this way helped conceal how crestfallen he was suddenly feeling. The girl stood aside to allow him to enter. He handed her his hat and gloves.
‘Very good, sir. I was told to expect you.’
‘You are new here, are you not?’ he asked, peering past her down the hall in a search for more familiar faces.
‘Been here almost a month now, sir.’
‘Is the professor at home?’
‘Mrs Simpson and the children are out visiting.’
‘And Miss Grindlay?’
‘She is at her father’s house in Liverpool.’
Raven thought again about Mina and her marital disappointment. He had hoped she would by now have found a suitable partner, but some things, as he well knew, were not meant to be. He looked up the length of the hallway again. Everything was preternaturally calm, causing him to feel uneasy. He decided he could stand it no longer.
‘Where is Miss Fisher?’ he asked.
‘Miss Fisher, sir?’
‘Yes, she is a housemaid here. Or was,’ he added. Sarah had received a promotion of sorts before he left, and he was unsure how he ought to refer to her now.
‘There is another housemaid here besides me, sir, but none called Fisher.’
She stared blankly and Raven suppressed a sigh. The girl had evidently replaced Sarah but was by no means a substitute for her.
He smiled benignly at her.
‘Perhaps you know her simply as Sarah.’
A realisation passed across her face like a shadow.
‘Oh. You must mean Miss Fisher as was, sir.’
As was? Raven was gripped by panic, his disappointed heart thumping again and his guts churning. What had happened to Sarah? Was she dead? He would surely have been told if something catastrophic had befallen her. Then he remembered all of his unsent letters. Perhaps no one would have thought to inform him. After all, they had endeavoured to keep their connection concealed.
His palms were suddenly moist. In that instant it all came flooding back and he understood that far from fading, his feelings for her had merely been suppressed by time and distance. Then he noticed that the girl was smiling.
‘She is no longer Miss Fisher, sir. She is now Mrs Banks.’
The Art of Dying by Ambrose Parry is published by Canongate Books, priced £14.99