By Malcolm Rose
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 pocket full 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. But Wes Radcliffe was not one for wincing. Unable to keep a straight face, he nudged Seth’s twin sister, Kim, and said, “What a bloody mess.”
Kim smiled back, then pulled her best vampire face and said, “Dripping gore. Yummy.”
Standing next to them at the end of the line of pupils, Seth was much more subdued.
The tour guide continued, “The village vicars, William Mompesson and Thomas Stanley, persuaded the villagers to make a superhuman sacrifice. Even knowing that many of them would die, they promised to stay put and cut themselves off from the rest of the country so they didn’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.”
She turned slightly towards the south and said, “There wasn’t any running water at the other drop-off point so they cut holes in a boulder called the Boundary Stone and left silver shillings in the hollows, covered with vinegar to clean them of the sickness.”
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 cold 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.”
“That’s a good one, sir. Well! Geddit?” Wes grinned and nodded towards the well before straightening up.
“Come on! Seth and Kim as well.”
Kim laughed. “Well, well. Another well,” she said, trying to distract the history teacher from Wes.
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.”
“And what are we going to do about it?” Kim replied.
“It’s Saturday tomorrow,” Seth said to his sister. “We’ll get the tram into town. Don’t you remember that shop near Castle Market that bought Nan’s old junk when she died?”
Wes looked at Kim and shrugged. “Worth a try, I guess.”
Kim agreed. “It’s my tournament on Sunday and I want to put some practice in but I’ve got time, I suppose.”
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.
There was another reason. Whenever things went wrong for Kim, Mum and Dad always put part of the blame on Seth. “A brother should look out for his sister,” they would mutter. “Especially because you’re older – by thirteen minutes.” This was meant as a joke, he knew, but then they’d add, “Besides, you’re the sensible one. You should’ve stopped her.” As if he – or anyone else – could control Kim. His parents didn’t know that Kim made it impossible for him to keep an eye on her. But she was still his twin, after all, and sometimes he admired her wildly adventurous spirit.
Today was no different. 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.
On a school trip to the plague village of Eyam, Seth is moved by the story of how villagers sacrificed their lives to the dreaded Black Death. Kim and Wes are more interested in what they see at the bottom of the wishing well - money!
But when they snatch the coins they also pick up something they hadn't bargained for, and as the hideous consequences of their theft catch up with them all, Seth is forced to face a terrifying truth. Has Eyam's plague-ridden past resurfaced to seek revenge?
“An enthralling read”
Books for Keeps
Malcolm Rose was born in Coventry and began his career as a research scientist. He started writing stories while studying for his DPhil degree in chemistry, as a means of escape from everyday life. He is now a full-time writer best known for his gripping scientific thrillers. He has been awarded the Angus Book Award twice and the Lancashire Children’s Book of the Year.
Visit www.malcolmrose.co.uk to find out more.
Read the following reviews or write one of your own.
“kiss of death”
It was the best story ever!
“kiss of death”
Brilliant story - the best story I have ever read!
“Rose's excellent writing - taut, economical and evocative - successfully counters his narrative contrivance, making this historical thriller an enthralling read, while he reserves one last twist for the unwary reader.”
Books for Keeps
“Malcolm Rose's Kiss of Death weaves a tale, which is at times suspenseful, but always interesting. It is a story of a seemingly petty crime that brings the past into a thrilling collision with the present. Past and present are neatly woven together, which as the story progresses lends a reality that allows the suspense to culminate satisfactorily. There is plenty of nice gory detail describing the symptoms of the Black Death spread throughout the book, and especially early on this is bound to grab the reader's attention. The first half of the book is fairly pedestrian, but the pace picks up later on, leading to an unexpected and shocking, but strangely satisfying climax. The subject matter of curses and disease within a modern setting has the potential to work for a wide audience.”
Janet Colquhoun, School Librarian
“This children's book, based on historical facts, was interesting to me because having grown up in Nottinghamshire and Derbyshire the story of Eyam village is very familiar. Eyam is one of those amazingly tragic stories of self sacrifice where human beings show their best side. For anyone not familiar with the story, the Plague or Black Death arrived in Eyam from London and rather than infect people outside the village with the dreadful disease, the village cut itself off, causing the plague to run amok among the its own population while they remained isolated. Kiss of Death is a supernatural story where the past reaches out and touches wrong doers. Wes and Kim are friends who take a fancy to the money in the wishing well on a school trip to Eyam and having grabbed it, are dogged by misfortune and illness until Seth, Kim’s twin, figures out what is going on and tries to make everything right again. This is a subject that will appeal to anyone who likes the gory bits of history and enjoys a good ghost story. The idea that curses and ill-wishes retain their potency across centuries is fascinating and leaves you wondering whether there is no such thing as an accident.”
Review by Chrissie on www.booklore.co.uk
“Loads of unexpected things happen around every corner. I couldn't put it down. I think every one who likes a bit of a chilling horror would LOVE this book! Probably 8+ sort of age range. Definitely an amazing book.”
Reading Zone 5 star reader's review