The Blood-Tub

Nighttime London

Image : Pixabay

 

He steps back to survey his work.

The alleyway stinks of the Thames, of fish baskets, of ropes steeped in river water. Snatching the handkerchief from his neck, he cleans the filth from his hands, grinds clean the half-moons of his nails.

Time to leave. He almost drops the ruined kerchief, but instead screws the sodden cloth into his trouser pocket to dispose of later.

Now the thing’s done he feels calm. The buzzing in his head has eased, the swarm of bees that beats and hums and stings the inside of his skull gone, leaving him soft.

As he turns to go, his heel slips on the greased cobbles.

*

The pub was busy tonight, the raddled old tarts warming themselves before the fire like stray dogs. ‘Terrible nip in the air, Pol,’ they said, ‘not fit for a dead moggy’. They don’t say the real reason they stay together, avoid the alleys and steaming rookeries. No mention of the Lambeth Butcher, as if to say the words aloud will summon him up.

My feet ache as I leave work, left big toe pressing against the seam of my old boot. Time for a new pair, if I had the money.

I smell the meat market before I see the runnels of blood, slick black in the lamplight. I jump over a clotting stream, leaves and a half eaten rat caught in the flow. The stink of death should make me heave, but my empty stomach growls, working against itself.

In my room there’s bread, a piece of cheese wrapped in a square of muslin to keep the flies from laying their eggs. But I’m not heading home.

Hand in my purse, I feel three fat pennies.

*

He stands on the Embankment, looks across the blinking river, imagines the carrion in the water, thud-thudding against the wherries. He lifts a finger to his nose, inhales, licks the tip. Tastes metal.

*

Pie in one hand, half cup of cocoa in the other, I walk. The brew’s watered down and gritty, but it’s hot and feels good in my chill fist. I don’t have a hand free to lift my skirts as I turn down New Cut, so I skip over horse shit, the potholes filled with straw and stinking run off, risk losing some cocoa.

The Old Vic Theatre lamps are off and the place feels haunted, hollow in the darkness. But the rain’s pattering the roof like hail, so I hunker by a column, swig the last of my drink, eat the pie, all tough pastry and grey tubes that stretch when I pull one from my mouth, like chewing on something newly dead.

Is my Francis is on his way? Boots shiny as a soldier’s, bowler tilted low?

I don’t like being alone.

*

Waterloo Bridge. Bridge of the dead. How many has he tossed into the water from here? It’s a simple thing once a body’s up on the balustrade – a brush of the hand and momentum does the rest. They drop like kittens in a sack, kick and beat against the tide, against the weight of their own clothes. But the chill Thames always wins.

Rain starts to fall.

*

The Blood-Tub, that’s what they call the Old Vic and the peeling advertisements show why. There’s a play about a man who shoots his sweetheart during a fight, buries her in a barn. In the print, her body’s scraped over with dirt, hand sticking from the ground like she’s trying to unbury herself. There’s red on her fingertips, blue for her dress, green for the barn, ink messy splashes like a young child’s painting.

The thought of that girl lying under the cold mud makes me shiver. And all by the hands of a man who loved her.

*

Trains rattle-clunk-wheeze to a halt on the railway bridge, a surge of smoke, smuts in his eyes, pricking his lungs. Gaslights gutter above him, remind him of the hole in his head where the buzzing grows. He stops a moment, listens for the bees.

A woman emerges from the smoke. Skinny, shawl pulled tight round her shoulders, dress faded, hem splashed with filth from the road. As she draws close, he can smell meat on her, something sugary.

His mouth begins to water.

*

My heart jumps at the sound of footsteps. I imagine blood washing the streets black, the glint of a blade. My mouth seems stuffed with gristle and I see a dead girl, hands clawing aside the earth, pointing a bony finger at her killer. I’m shaking hard, my eyes fill with tears, my bladder aches and I’m choking and I can’t swallow and a man steps out of the smoke, arm outstretched, reaching, reaching …

‘Evening Polly.’

‘Francis.’

I’m so relieved, my knees sag, I reach for him to stop from falling. My face is wet and his arm folds round me and he smells of the city – of smoke and the river and tin – and laughter rumbles in his chest.

In a while I’m calm and say, ‘Got a hanky?’

His hand reaches to his pocket then stops, falls limp to his side.

‘I … lost it,’ he says. ‘Come to my lodgings. I’ll build a fire.’

He takes my hand and I flood with warmth. Finally I’m safe.

 


This was originally posted on Waltbox as The Fate of Lambeth Polly, but as it’s nearly Halloween and we all need to be creeped out a little, I thought I’d repost it here on Word Shamble. Happy Scaring.

 

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13 thoughts on “The Blood-Tub

  1. Delciously — is that the word? — evocative of a time, a place, an atmosphere. Love the episodic feel with changing points of view until you piece the scraps together — this would work well as a graphic novel, images matching words, words keeping pace with creeping fascination and gradual realisation. Masterful.

    Btw, are the allusions to the infamous Red Barn Murders so beloved of Victorian balladeers and melidramatists?

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Thank you so much Chris. I’m glad you thought the structure worked well – structure always being one of my weaknesses I think. A graphic novel – what a grand idea. A la From Hell, do you think? Love that. And yes, absolutely right, the Red Barn is definitely the reference. The story was dramatised for the stage in the 19th C and the Old Vic was nicknamed The Blood Tub for staging similar shows. Polstead, where the killing took place, is close to where my dad used to live- where my brother still lives – in Suffolk. These tragic lovers tales stick with me. I remember the Ballad of Charlotte Dymond very clearly from studying it at school. Love and murder walking hand in hand.
      I must go and listen to some Carpenters or something – get a little sunshine in my soul 🙂

      Liked by 2 people

      1. I see no problem with the structuring of your short stories, flash fiuction especially! Without seeing your longer work I can’t otherwise judge, Lynn, but I suspect you would beaver away at redrafting to gwt that absolutely right.

        Liked by 1 person

      2. The longer fiction is definitely a tough one for me as far as plot is concerned and no matter how many guides I read on the subject (some tell you to follow an 8 step plot, some to create a graph) it becomes no clearer.
        Have you been watching Andrew Marr’s programmes on books on BBC 4? To be honest, I find his presentation style … baffling, but the subjects have been good, especially the last on fantasy. I noticed my current book adhered to the ‘heroes journey’ story arc, which could either mean it has a coherent plot or that it’s predictable!
        Thanks so much for the feedback, Chris – much appreciated 🙂

        Liked by 1 person

      3. Haven’t seen the Marr progs yet. Have you read Booker’s ‘The Seven Basic Plots’? I did a review of it a while back, and it suggests inter alia that it’s the combination of plots thatmakes for a stronger narrative arc.
        Incidentally, I’m vaguely planning a series of reviews on structuralist studies — of folktales, medieval epics and modern fiction — next year, if you’re interested, and if it’s not too late for your magnum opus!

        PS Apologies for spelling errors in recent responses, I’m all thumbs on my teeny Samsung phone …

        Liked by 1 person

      4. Ooh, all sounds interesting – I’ve heard of the Seven Basic Plots but not read it and your plots posts sound very interesting. As I’m still on the first draft of what Baldrick would call my ‘magnificent octopus’, it may not be too late. I’ll see how I progress 🙂
        The Marr Programmes are interesting – who doesn’t like a discussion about books – but his presentation is eccentric. The programme makers let him act – very ill advised 🙂

        Liked by 1 person

  2. Liked it again, and the new title, and image. The bridge there reminds me of one in Inverness (weird, where we were staying a year ago this week…when you and I exchanged notes about Guy Fawkes).

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Thanks again Bill. 🙂 Yes, I wasn’t happy with the title – I’m rarely good at titles TBH. It is a lovely bridge – Westminster I believe, so not actually the one in the story, but I think Waterloo has been rebuilt since Polly’s time.
      Ah, yes, nearly Bonfire Night again here. The closest we get to knowing what it sounds like to be under bombardment! So much smoke from the firewoks, it’ll look like a sea fog is rolling in over Bristol.
      Still can’t believe it’s a year since you did some of your UK travelling. And sadly since then we’ve taken a huge step towards NOT being the UK anymore. All the best

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Ah, The Carpenters. No one but Karen has a voice that sounds so happy and so sad at the same time. She’s like a Cobain for the seventies, kind of, in a weird way that makes sense to me at least, as I type, if no one else. They never should have pulled her out from behind those drums, where she was happiest. Or maybe she shouldn’t have let them. I don’t know. But I do love me some Carpenters.

    Really like this one, Lynn. Again, thanks for sharing it. Very curious about the book, so many questions. But better you just get down to it than answer a bunch of silly questions from me. No distractions. Type like the wind, as the boys in Spinal Tap might say.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Ah, Spinal Tap! Dying to show my son that film, but will have to show him a ton of footage from rock gigs first so he gets why it’s so funny 🙂
      I do get what you mean about Karen Carpenter – the sweetest voice, but with a real melancholy too. You’re right about her looking happiest when she was drumming too. Why did they make her come out front? Sadly, once she started singing about alien contact I think the best was over. ‘Yesterday once more’ though – one of the most melancholic songs ever.
      Thanks so much for your support with the story. Now, back to the keyboard.

      Liked by 2 people

  4. The lovely atmospheric type of piece that is my sense of Victorian London. It seems like my entire historical knowledge has been gleaned from Dickens, Doyle, and contemporary mystery writing.
    Read Guy Fawkes in your comments. In Newfoundland and Labrador, Canada, Guy Fawkes night is still celebrated with bonfires every year. The Gun Powder Plot is not forgotten. They still have a Mummers tradition too.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you so much for the comment on the Blood-Tub. Yes, I know what you mean. I think my Victorian-set writing is based as much on the popular Sherlock Holmes TV adaptations we had here in the 80s as they are on research- all pea souper fogs and Hansom carriages 🙂
      You celebrate Bonfire Night in Canada? Wow. I had no idea. I guess it was taken over with English Protestants, was it? And Mummers too – fantastic. There’s a lot to love about these autumnal celebrations – definitely something primeval about gathering round a fire on a cold night, holding back the winter with the flames. 🙂

      Like

      1. In Newfoundland, there remained a strong English Catholic presence. And Newfoundland didn’t join Canada until 1949 – until then a colony of GB still so retained more of the traditions of Britons and Irish.
        Loreena McKennitt, a Canadian singer/songwriter/harpist follows the Celtic among other traditions and one of my favourite songs is “All Souls Night.”

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