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 …
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.