Anyone arriving by mistake or for any other reasons and who wishes to continue reading will find the explanation for this sequence of posts, not surprisingly, at the start of episode 1. But now we’ve reached…
I have been to Pensioners Court only infrequently and, each time, the degradation of the place has made me shudder. Drunks lie still and silent in their own and others’ urine and vomit. Groups rage and argue over a woman, a half empty bottle of whisky, or nothing. Few of Aberdeen’s forty-seven night watchmen ever venture there. For the most part they are older men and the eleven shillings a week they’re paid is not enough to persuade them to risk the fists, boots and knives which await them there. Every black doorway holds menace. Figures wait in their shadows, still and watching, and many innocents, children and adults alike, have been dragged into these corners to be filled with their own darkness by the knife which slides quickly across their throat. In Pensioners Court, life is brief and cheap.
I was glad of the company of Big John. He’d fought in bars from Newfoundland to the East Indies and China and feared no-one. He also seemed to know who he was looking for.
“Noah McPhee, we’ll start with him,” he said. “Find him and you’ll find all the scum you want.”
It was a name I knew well.
“Is it not dangerous to have such a man on board?” I asked.
Big John laughed. There was no joy in it.
“He’s no man. He’s raped and killed and robbed, but he chooses women and old men, or people too far into their drink to know who they are. He’s a coward. Take him away from his whisky and set him on a slippery deck. That’ll pull his teeth.”
I wanted to share his confidence, but I could not dismiss with such ease the history of McPhee and his gang. With Cammie Drewburgh, Rab Robertson and Davie Strachan, he seemed to have set out to move beyond mere crime into evil itself. Even as youngsters, they’d built themselves reputations as the blackest rogues, running into Mother Watson’s ale-house with live rats and throwing them on the fire, cutting the tendons of horses waiting patiently in the shafts of their carts. Once, they hacked off a dog’s leg and set the animal to run free in the street, trailing its blood amongst terrified mothers and children.
And then, as they grew into men, their attention turned to women, whom they treated just as they had the animals, perpetrating crimes on girls as young as eight, systematically raping them, selling their pale bodies to visitors in Pensioners Court.
They spent many months in the Bridewell Prison in Rose Street and seemed only to use their time there to refine their villainy. Everyone was afraid of them. Their crimes were rarely reported and the police officers themselves preferred to stay away from them.
“They should have been hanged long ago. Or sent to Australia,” said Big John, his voice low, barely audible.
I just nodded.
“What they did to those lassies,” he went on. “Slashing their horse’s neck, dragging them out of the carriage.”
I knew the incident he was speaking of. Everyone in Aberdeen did.
“The old one,” he said. “Stripping her, beating her, taking everything and sending her crying through the streets like that. In just a shift.”
“She was the lucky one,” I said.
“Aye. I’ve thought many times how the young one must have felt, lying on the cobbles, in the dung, with the four of them taking their turns with her.” He shook his head. “A lassie, Joe. What enters into men to make them do it?”
I could only shake my head.
“And then throwing her behind a fish store, like a bundle of rags. It would’ve been better if she’d died.”
“I don’t think so,” I said. “She survived. She beat them in the end.”
“Aye, but she canna say so. Canna speak, canna walk, canna even wave her arm. It’s the devil’s work they do.”
It was hard to disagree with him. There had been no punishment. The drunken crowd in Sinclair’s Close had been entertained by it all but no-one was ready to speak to the police about it and the two women felt such shame that they simply retreated behind their doors to fight the memories in silence.