Waiting in the concourse of Waverley Station Anna basked in the sunlight pouring through the glass roof. A buzz of activity swarmed around her as people came and went, everyone seeming to be in a rush to be somewhere. She often wondered about people’s lives and wanted to stop each person as they passed to ask where they had come from, where they were going to and why. This snapshot of city life on a random Wednesday morning intrigued her. She could spend hours simply sitting and watching the world go by, satisfying her curiosity by guessing what people were called, what they did for a living and where they were off to. Inevitably the scene before her would then begin to roll back in time as she imagined what this place was like fifty years ago or one hundred years ago. How were the people dressed then? How were names and occupations different to now? And what about the surroundings? Would she still recognise this place where she stood were she suddenly transported to this exact spot in 1920? In the train station she probably would. It had been standing since well before that date. That would be something to see, the romance and glamour of the roaring twenties and the age of the steam engine. Anna tried to conjure it in her mind, the style and grandeur of a different time.
“Mate, I’ve missed my train! What am I going to do?”
A loud London accent filled her ears as a young man pulled his case over to beside where she stood and lamented his predicament to a friend on the phone, a little too loudly. Snapped unceremoniously back to the present, Anna checked her watch and began to look out for her aunt whose train was due in a couple of minutes earlier. Sure enough, Abigail appeared a few moments later smiling and waving through the crowds. As she watched her approach Anna caught a small glimpse of how her Mum might have looked had she lived to see this age. The sisters had been very different in both their colouring and personalities, and yet pictures of them together as young women left you in no doubt that they were related. How might these two have greeted one another today if they’d had the chance? The thought made her smile, in spite of the feelings of trepidation buzzing around her stomach. Usually she looked forward to seeing Abigail but today was different. Today she would tell her aunt what she had discovered about their family history.
“What a glorious day!” exclaimed Abigail, wrapping her niece in a strong embrace. “I haven’t been up to the city in so long and on a day like this I wonder why I’ve stayed away. Thanks for suggesting this.”
“Thanks for coming. Looking fabulous as ever Abigail.”
Anna stood back to take in the full ensemble of her aunt’s attire. A simple billowing dress was covered by the most majestic full length coat, intricately woven with pattern and colour, not too busy but it drew the eye for certain. Once again Anna marvelled at other people’s ability to wear what would make her look ridiculous. Abigail looked effortlessly regal, like she was born to wear it. Anna knew that, on her, it would look like a little girl playing dress up.
“Why thank you,” Abigail smiled. “Vintage you know,” she added, twirling for effect before leaning forward and whispering, “and when I say vintage, I mean I’ve had it in my cupboard for forty years. Now, shall we drink tea?” Sticking her elbow out towards her niece, Anna accepted the invitation and the two women linked arms and made their way up into city.
Two pots of tea later, as Abigail picked up the crumbs from her plate with her finger, Anna finished relaying the contents of the journal and letters she had found in Elie. There was a long pause as Abigail continued to stare at her plate, completely lost in thought.
“Well? What do you think about it all?” Anna asked, unable to bear one more second of silence.
“I… well,” she puffed her cheeks out and exhaled, “I don’t know where to start. I mean there’s so much to take in, so much that I didn’t know. I’m pretty sure she didn’t know all of this before our step-dad died but I wonder why she didn’t tell me what she’d found?”
“I’ve been wondering about that too. Perhaps she only pieced everything together just before she became sick and then there was no time. ”
“Maybe,” Abigail agreed while still obviously taking in the enormity of this revelation. She looked into the middle distance for a time, silently piecing together the fragments of personal history to see how they would fit.
“How do you feel? How do you think your stepdad would have felt?”
“I’m not sure – still figuring that out,” she began slowly. “There are definitely conflicting emotions. I feel ashamed but also proud all at the same time. I mean both Molly and her father are part of that family history, and yes a huge chunk of it is abhorrent, yet within it there are also those trying to do the right thing. I guess that’s how life can be at times, including how families operate. You can be the same blood but vastly different people, in all kinds of ways. Where and who we’re from is important, but not as important as who we choose to become.”
“I suppose,” Anna agreed with a degree of uncertainty. “But what if where we’ve been is treated like a dark secret, something to be forgotten and ignored, when really it needs to be acknowledged and spoken of? Not just by our family but by all of us? This is our collective history and I didn’t know it – how is that possible? How can I have studied the history of this country and this didn’t come up?”
Abigail slide her hand across the table to squeeze Anna’s arm.
“Now that I do know, I’ve done a bit more research and digging myself and there’s something I want to show you. It’s quite near here, if you’re ready to stretch your legs?”
“More intrigue?” Abigail raised her eyebrows. “Let’s see it then. Lead on.”
Leaving behind the busier streets of the New Town, with their stylish cafes, florists and gift shops, they wandered along a quiet cobbled side road of Georgian townhouses, their pale stone bleached in morning sun. Painted railings climbed sets of steps to smart front doors, potted shrubs stood on sentry duty while brass numbers and name plaques glinted hello as they passed. Finally Anna stopped outside one property and turned to gesture up at the building.
“This is it.”
Abigail looked at the burgundy front door and then at the name plate beside it.
“Paterson Surveryors,” she read aloud.
“It is now, yes,” Anna explained, “but in the early 1800s this was the Mackenzie family residence. It was the home of Emily and John before they went to Jamaica and it was where they returned to when they left Molly behind.”
Abigail allowed her eyes to slowly take in the full height of the house before her.
“Goodness me,” she whispered, her brow furrowing in thought. “How on earth did you find this information?”
“When slavery was finally abolished, the only way it was made palatable to plantation owners was for them to be able to claim compensation for their loss of property.”
“And by property, they meant people, right?” Abigail asked with a look of distaste.
“Yes. There’s a website documenting all of the claims that were made at the end of slavery, with details of who made the claim, for how many slaves on which plantation, how much they were paid etc., and the address in the UK from which the claim was being made. This was still the official residence of the family and so it came up on the site: John Mackenzie from the Harlaw Vale Estate in Jamaica claiming for 98 slaves.”
The two women stood for a few moments, gazing at the silent stone, lost in thought.
“It’s strange, you know,” Anna continued, looking around her, “I thought I knew this place, Edinburgh I mean, and now it’s like I’ve found a huge skeleton in her closet. There are addresses all over this city where people made financial claims for owning people. There are things that have been staring me in the face all my life and I’ve just accepted them at face value, never asking why they are there or what their significance is to our past or, for that matter, to our present. It’s…” her eyes searched the air around her trying to find the right words. “It’s unsettling. It’s deeply uncomfortable, and I’m not sure what to do with that.”
Abigail wrapped her arm around her niece and gave her a squeeze.
“I do so love your heart,” she smiled.
“It’s a strange piece of advice I’m about to offer, but don’t be too quick to run away from the discomfort. I think it’s right that you let it sit with you a while, and with me too. Let it speak to you. I think it’ll tell you what to do with it, if you give it time.”
“Yeah, perhaps. I do have one thought already.”
“Well I shall be delighted to hear about that, but perhaps over some lunch? It seems about that time, don’t you think?”
As though hearing the cue, Anna’s stomach growled loudly.
“I absolutely do,” she laughed. “Let’s do that.”
Steaming bowls of soup were placed on the table and a basket of freshly baked bread sat between them.
“Ah real butter, served in a dish and not little foil packets. This is my kind of place,” Abigail declared, scooping up a generous portion with her knife.
“So I see. Would you like some bread with that butter?” Anna teased her aunt for the umpteenth time on this topic. On the question of what items you constantly have in your fridge, top of Abigail’s list would always be butter. She put it in everything, and on everything – potatoes, ginger cake, digestive biscuits – there was nothing that couldn’t be improved with the addition of a layer of butter. How she wasn’t the width of a house was a constant marvel to Anna.
“So tell me, what does your Dad make of this plan of yours?”
“Are you mad? Do you think I’m mad? No daughter of mine is going wandering around Kingston on her own. You know it appears regularly on the list of most dangerous cities to visit?”
Anna stayed quiet and let him get it all out. She was slowly starting to learn that any interjection at this point would only lead to a full blown argument where neither of them would speak in a rational way and instead a solemn mood would hang between them for hours. She could live without that. By a process of elimination she had finally figured out that the best thing was to let him make all of his objections, passionately and vehemently in this case, listen patiently while making some tea, serve the tea to him and wait for the eruption to subside and cool. Then and only then would she speak, offering understanding of all his points but ready with carefully considered counter arguments, backed up with evidence and a plan. This is what it meant to be the daughter of a top lawyer. Even so, this particular situation would need delicate handling. Things were good between them, really good, for the first time in years and Anna didn’t want to ruin that.
“Dad, I won’t be on my own, Julia will be with me.”
He rolled his eyes, shaking his head in derision. Her best friend was clearly not the body guard he had in mind.
“We’ll be sensible, of course we will. I’ve done my research and taken a note of all the advice for travellers. Nowhere is as bad as its reputation and there are good people everywhere. We’ll only be in the city for four or five days and then we’ll go to Montego Bay and stay in an all-inclusive resort. We’ll be fine.”
She could almost hear the cogs turning in his mind. He was contemplating his next move.
“What do Fran and Richard think about this idea?”
She was right back to being ten years old, bringing home the note from school about a trip to London. To hear her Dad then you’d think the suggestion was that they were taking a visit to a crack den followed up by a tour of the red light district.
“Well,” she began slowly, “They obviously share some of your concerns…”
A look of ‘I told you so’ came over his face.
“However,” Anna locked eyes with her father and spoke gently but firmly, “they also realise that we are actually adults who can go where we choose and do what we like.”
Tapping his hands on the table, her father took a deep breath and exhaled slowly.
“I see,” he said rather grimly, before taking himself off to another room.
“Well he’s not delighted at the idea but is slowly coming to the realisation that he can’t do anything about it. The upside is that he’s insisted on paying for the hotel in Kingston to ensure that we stay in one of the best and most respectable places, so that he can sleep at night apparently!”
A look of deep compassion formed on Abigail’s face.
“Bless him. He’s had a lot of loss in his life. He just can’t bear the thought of something happening to you. It’s understandable, but good on you for handling the situation and pushing ahead with your plans. Your Mum would be proud of you.”
“I hope so. It’s a good feeling, to finish something that she started. It’s almost as though I can sense her holding my hand as I do it, keeping me company. Does that sound weird?”
Abigail smiled and shook her head gently.
“Not even slightly.”
They finished their lunch alternating between thoughtful silence and chit chat, both obviously still processing the recent revelations. On the pavement outside Abigail checked her watch and confirmed she had an hour before needing to catch a train home.
“So what shall we do?”
“Well I haven’t been to the sun in a few years so I need to get a few things for my trip. I could make a dent in my list between here and the station if you don’t mind?”
“I’ve never objected to shopping in my life and I’m not going to start now.”
Anna offered the crook of her arm to her aunt and together they headed into the city streets.