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Princes St.

by Emma Mankowski 9 months ago in Short Story
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A short story

Credit: Ed O'Keefe Photography

Leopold Place, Edinburgh, Scotland, United Kingdom

January 2nd, 2022

7:04pm

I exit my basement flat and greet the bitter, fresh air. It is the coldest month of the year, yet still I relish the chill of the evening. My flat is stuffy. With an oversized, archaic furnace, it’s hard to regulate the heat. The front courtyard is like a little pocket in the earth; a brick wall barricades the sides against the house. A concrete set of stairs leads me to the street, a black metal fence awaits my touch. I lightly nudge it open.

I check my phone. The town has combated the sunset with artificial light and a rabble of people that gives it the feeling that it’s still day, but the impending clouds threaten an earlier night. So much the better. My task will be more effective in the fog.

Stepping my feet, armored with combat boots, into the road, I glance slightly behind and to my right at the enormous park that looms around the corner. Its trees are bare in January, but the grounds are nonetheless foreboding. However, it is not the park that I will travel to tonight. I am going to Princes St.

At the end of the block to my left is a roundabout, and it is there that I steer my direction. My boots crush puddles left behind by the rain of the past morning. I stick my hands in my pockets and stare down at the pavement, observing each puddle as if it is a distinct habitat that I am disturbing. Every drop that my boots launch out of place is an avalanche, every indentation in the water a monsoon.

A bookstore molded into a rounded form, as if by a giant file, hugs the corner of the street at the roundabout. I gaze into its massive windows, assessing the customers. A young boy with his mother, selecting a picture book, a group of teens gaggling over a newly released novel that has been given its own display table, and an old man carefully examining the front shelf, adjusting his glasses as they tip over at the tilt of his head to read a book spine.

A late-night Italian take away restaurant follows the bookstore, and it’s free of customers at the beginning of the evening. A scrawny boy, perhaps a son or nephew of the owner, wipes down the front counter with broad strokes. The stairs next to the take-away lead to a bar called the Planet. On my return journey, there will be a long queue of patrons talking and laughing as they wait for entrance, but for now it is silent.

After a hotel, there’s a quaint little theatre entrance that juts out, almost into the road. Theatre Royal Bar is lettered in gold over the black paint. Three feet of concrete path stand between the theatre bar and the busy street, and I have to squeeze past people crowded in front of the theatre to avoid colliding with a red double-decker bus. A printed sign on the side of the bus reminds me of the release of The Matrix: Resurrections, December 22, 2021, starring Keanu Reeves and Carrie-Anne Moss, a film which I don’t have the time nor inclination to see, but can’t seem to avoid the pressure of watching.

The people around me are crowded against the theatre entrance, larger and glitzier than the bar, but they aren’t waiting for a show. Instead they’re talking frantically, some of them loudly, and some in ethereal whispers. From what I can distinguish, they’re discussing something that happened to the theatre. I don’t want to stay and get caught up in the rabble, and I especially don’t want to talk to anyone. But I am curious. So I observe. Upon closer scrutiny, the theatre seems to have a sign posted to the door. Without disturbing the troupe of visitors, I manage to come just close enough to read the sign but far away enough to portray my relative disinterest. Edinburgh Playhouse temporarily closed for refurbishment and rejuvenation. Seems like a simple explanation for the lack of attendants at the ticket counter. However, it doesn’t account for the chaotic presence of so many Edinburgh citizens. Stepping back, away from my present position, I tune into the rapid exchange of words around me. It seems like the city’s dwellers aren’t buying into the all-too-simple explanation. There’s something more behind the theatre’s closure. Something to do with a woman’s son- no, her sister’s. I can’t tell for sure. But something happened that these women are gossiping about. Or maybe gossip isn’t an appropriate word for what I’m observing auditorily, because it seems to have more gravity than typical gossip.

It doesn’t matter. I have a mission, and I have to continue on.

The massive OMNi Centre is smushed up against an ancient-looking clock tower. That’s the thing about Edinburgh that astounds me. The ancient coexisting with the modern. There’s no in-between, no gentle transitions. Just a futuristic white and steel structure sitting against brick that has stood firm since William Wallace was here. I decide to walk up the steps of the OMNi Centre, just for fun. I take the steps two at a time, landing my boots firmly on the platform. I walk over to the giraffes, thin but not fragile, and jump up in an attempt to tap the shorter one’s head. The OMNi Centre, a few more restaurants, and I’ve reached the end of Leith St, at least as far as my journey concerns it. I cut across through the construction before hitting the A1. Now I’m on Princes St. A rapid tram darts along the center of the road, a never-ending path of up and down Princes St. There’s the Scott Monument in the distance, an eternal reminder of the longevity of brick and mortar. I know my contact isn’t going to be on time, so I pay the 5£ fee and slowly make my way to the top. I don’t have much faith in the reliability of bricks layed almost 200 years ago, but I try to reassure myself by telling myself that hundreds of people tread these same steps every day. Or maybe the immense traffic makes it worse, maybe the countless tourists wear it down. Maybe I’ll be the first to see the tower collapse beneath my feet. I count the steps until I reach number 287. And I’m there. At the top of the world.

Edinburgh is turning its face to that of the night. Soon, bars and clubs will open, museums will close. Parents will head home to their children, young people will dress up for a night out, savoring the end of the holiday weekend break. For me, my work is always constant. I’ve never spent a “night out.” But I don’t envy these people their ignorance. I have important work to do.

I count 287 again, backwards this time, and land my boots on solid ground once more. I pass through the gardens, weaving between people and dogs and prams. To my right are shopping malls, and to my left, an ancient castle situated on grounds lush in summer, but barren at present.

I pull the black hood of my jacket over my head, in an effort to stay warm and anonymous. When I’m sure no one is looking, I hop lightly over the fence into the castle grounds. I trudge through the thick underbrush, staying hidden from the road by the massive trees. Even without their leaves they provide protection.

I reach the castle. It stands on a block of the most solid rock I’ve ever seen; a volcanic crag; Castle Rock. Fortunately for my objective, it is not smooth, but rough and full of crevices. I hike the front of my boot into a crack in the rock, grabbing a similar nook with my right fingertips. Using this method, finding a crevice, grabbing it, and then hoisting myself up to repeat the pattern, I make my way to the top of the rock and reach the castle. It’s fortified by wall that are more than 7 meters high, but I came prepared. Inside my bag is a grappling hook gun, which I deploy and use to skirt up the side of the wall. I wrap up the cord of the grappling hook and replace it in my bag before strolling casually into the castle.

There are guards, but they don’t notice me. I am a mere shadow, not here to disturb. I find a corner to fold myself into.

And now, I wait. And wait. 8 o’clock. 9 o’clock. They’re late, they’re very late, but I wasn’t expecting punctuality. Fulfillment is all that matters, and they’ll get here when they get here. I brought my documents along, just in case, and I peruse them carefully.

Footsteps. Not as loud as the security guards’ standard issue shoes. It must be my contact.

We meet in silence. I don’t even see their face. I couldn't if I tried, the clouds have come to meet the earth, rendering the castle’s lights useless. My contact slips a small package into my bag, and I murmur my thanks. We part, and I slide down the castle walls effortlessly.

I’m back on Princes St. It’s different now. The shops are closed, the tourists are gone. Only now do I begin to notice the trace of scum in the streets. In the morning Princes St will be cleaned by the sun, but in the dark fog it looks like a layer of grime has settled upon the road. I walk to the station, in a hurry this time. No sidetracking anymore. I catch the 9:30 from Waverley to a destination I won’t say. But at a point that night, I arrived. There it was- the archives. One of those massive buildings that was ancient brick interspersed with glass and aluminum. I shake the front door, the only entrance, and find it locked. I pick the lock with a tool from my bag, and walk in a complete circle through the room. And then the second floor. And then the third. And the fourth. And the fifth. On the roof, I can see farther than I did at the Scott Monument, although this time it’s a different city. And I’m in a park that seems to stretch for miles. I revisit the third floor to grab what I need. It’s a heavy stack, and it weighs down my bag.

At the surface again, but still in the clouds, I remove the package, the one I received at the castle. I shuffle my way under the building, through the crawlspace. I attach the package securely to the base of the structure. This part’s concrete. Not ancient brick. I tap the side of the device and exit the crawlspace, exit the park.

One more train ride, and I’m back at Waverley. Soon I’ll go home, back to my basement flat. But first I stand and soak in Princes St.

Short Story

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Emma Mankowski

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