For a few seconds, Seth thought that the tour guide must have mistaken them for a load of primary school kids, because she was chanting an old nursery rhyme. Perhaps it was an April Fools’ joke.
“Ring-a-ring o’ roses, A pocketful of posies. A-tishoo! A-tishoo! We all fall down.”
Yet it was a wicked smile that came to her face.
“It might sound jolly, but it’s very cruel really, because it’s about the Black Death here in Eyam in the seventeenth century. The ‘ring o’ roses’ was the horrible red rash on the victims’ bodies. The ‘posies’ were the herbs that didn’t cure it, and ‘a-tishoo’ was the sneezing that spread it around. It was the plague that made everyone ‘fall down’ – dead.”
The trip to Eyam was the first of two school visits near the end of the spring term. Seth’s group had come to a halt just off a lane that led sharply downhill into the Derbyshire village. They had formed a semicircle around a dreary monument, covered in moss and algae.
Just as the school party was getting bored with the chat about a nursery rhyme, the local guide began to talk in gruesome detail about the symptoms of the Black Death: vomiting, coughing blood, unstoppable diarrhoea, dark blotches in the neck, armpits and groin, and the suffocating stench of death.
Deciding that the disease was no joke, Seth screwed up his face in disgust. The plague may have been three hundred and forty years ago, but the thought of unending diarrhoea and bleeding in the groin grabbed everyone’s attention. When the guide told them how people would moan, groan and scream as they came out in unbearably painful black boils, filled with blood and pus, half of the students grimaced. The other half looked at each other and grinned.
The tour guide continued, “Knowing that many of them would die, they promised to stay put and cut themselves off from the rest of the country so they wouldn’t spread the disease. People living in the surrounding area left food and supplies for them either at the southern edge of the village, or right here. The survivors had to pay for everything, but their coins were contaminated, so they put them in this well where the running water would wash away the seeds of plague.”
The tour guide pointed down at the spring that was partly covered by a grubby, concrete hood. “It became known later as Mompesson’s Well.”
Wes peered into the discoloured water of Mompesson’s Well and muttered sarcastically, “Exciting.”
Kim elbowed him and whispered, “Look, there’s money in it.”
“Is there?” Wes glanced down again and nodded. There were at least three-pound coins, a couple of fifty-pence pieces and some other coins that Wes didn’t recognize.
“Yeah. Real money.”
When the school party began to snake away from the monument, the guide and a teacher at its head, Wes lingered and kneeled down at the edge of the well.
“I don’t think you ought to…” Seth said to his mate. But he was too late.
Wes’s hand was already in the slimy water, scooping out a handful of coins.
“Wesley!” Mr. Hanif yelled. “What are you doing?”
“Nothing, sir,” Wes replied. Quickly, he closed his fist around the icy loot. “Just tying my shoelaces.”
“Well, hurry up.”
“Come on! Seth and Kim as well.”
Behind Seth, Wes slipped the cash into his pocket and wiped his wet hand on his trousers. He could feel the coins against his leg. They were surprisingly heavy and, even through the material, they felt uncannily cold against his skin, making him shudder.
It wasn’t a fantastic haul. Wes, Kim and Seth got nearly a pound each. But they stood a chance of getting more. After they’d shared out the modern money, they were left with one unrecognizable, dull rectangle about the size of a domino and three diamond-shaped silvery coins carrying a date of 1646. Kim and Wes would have thrown them away as useless, but Seth stopped them. He poked the coins with his forefinger, but couldn’t bring himself to pick them up. “Look, they’re more than three hundred years old,” he said. “Could be worth a lot.”
Twins were supposed to have an uncanny and unspoken understanding. But Seth didn’t share a subconscious, almost mystical link with Kim. At times, he barely shared a conscious one with her. He stuck with her, though, because she was his sister and she’d become a firm friend of his best mate. Perhaps Wes and Kim had hit it off because they could be as bad as each other. They were often in trouble and seemed to egg each other on.
Something inside Seth told him that the stolen coins were trouble. He had seen how Wes’s whole body shivered when he put them into his trouser pocket. Seth felt uneasy, but he couldn’t help going along with his sister and friend.