Whitechapel snippets

13 December 2011

Because it’s a cold miserable day here in Bristol and so perfect for some creepy Victorian carryings on, here’s the first snippet of the OTHER book I am working on, which is set during the Ripper murders in 1888.

Calais, 1887.

I wish that I’d never looked out of that bloody window. It was Marie’s idea of course, just like everything else, good, bad and terrible, that I got up to that long hot filthy summer at Madame Lisette’s. I should have known how things would be though as soon as she’d pulled the grimy red velvet curtain aside and given a theatrical gasp of shocked surprise. We were always saying that she ought to have been on the stage. ‘Come and see this.’ She’d leaned against the dirty glass, her gin scented breath steaming up the cracked and mould covered pane so that she had to scrub at it squeakily with her black lace mittened hand to be able to see again. ‘What’s that down there?’ She demanded, screwing up her face as she looked down into the gloom. ‘Can you see what it is?’

She beckoned me over and I rather thankfully put aside the red woollen stockings that I was clumsily and unskilfully darning (don’t blame my poor old mama – she did her best to teach me how to be a good little woman but, like me, had poor materials to work with) and went to the window, expecting to see nothing more remarkable than some cats having a fight or a drunk fast asleep and snoring noisily on the doorstep while a dark little puddle of urine spread silently around his feet. Now, of course, I wish that I had been disappointed as I peered down through the murky darkness at the two figures who struggled frantically on the dirty, rain slicked cobbles of the yard.

‘They’ve got a bit of a cheek doing that down there,’ Marie observed with a sniff, turning her head to the side as she tried to make out what was happening down below. ‘Taking bread out of our mouths, she is.’

‘Maybe it’s one of our girls,’ I said slowly, watching them and thinking that there was something wrong, that the woman’s feet drumming and kicking against the cobbles and her muffled squawks of alarm had little to do with the feigned passion that my companion and I both knew so well and, in fact, specialised in. ‘Do you think we should go down and see if she needs help?’ I said doubtfully, wondering why the woman had agreed to lie down on the wet cobbles when it would have been dryer and easier by far to do the business standing up in a nearby alleyway.

‘Not a chance,’ Marie scoffed. ‘And get an earful for scaring off her client? Business isn’t exactly booming right now, is it?’

‘I’m glad of the rest,’ I said, with a sigh and a wink. ‘The hot weather does something terrible to men, doesn’t it?’ There’d been a heat wave a few weeks ago and we’d spent most of our days exhaustedly servicing one customer after another in the sweltering little rooms, painted pink and stinking cloyingly of musk and roses, at the back of the house. It was a blessed relief when the weather finally broke and the rain came thick and fast, thudding against the rattling window panes and drumming noisily on the roof tiles above our heads.

As Marie and I were by far the youngest and, I hope you don’t think me big headed for saying this, prettiest girls at Madame Lisette‘s establishment we’d naturally been the most in demand when hordes of lustful sweating men had started appearing in the shabby crimson and pink parlour downstairs. For a long time afterwards I’d associate hot summer days with lying on my front, my face buried in a musty smelling pillow as I faked moans and whimpers of delight to the accompaniment of Marie screeching like a scalded cat in the room next door while her headboard banged against the wall. ‘Oh, they were bad times…’ I started to say when Marie gave a cry and cut me off.

I looked out of the window and saw the flash of a blade and then another. ‘F*ck me,’ I whispered, shocked. ‘He’s killing her. I knew something wasn’t right.’ I looked at my friend, who had gone pale with fright. ‘What should we do?’

‘Still want to go down there, do you?’ Marie had grabbed hold of my arm and was clinging on, her red painted fingernails sinking into my flesh.

I shook her off and even as she put out her hand to stop me, I forced up the window and shouted ‘Murder!’ as loudly as I could down into the yard. The man paused and I caught my breath, my heart lurching in terror towards my bare feet as he looked back up over his shoulder at our window before carefully pulling down the woman’s disordered skirts which had been lifted up to just above her hips and wiping his hands on them. ‘Murder!’ I shouted again, more shakily this time as he calmly got to his feet and walking briskly away, tucking his bloody knife into an inside pocket as he went.

‘If we go out now, we’ll catch him,’ I said frantically, running to the door, not caring that I was only dressed in my light linen chemise, with my hair hanging unbrushed down my back. I planned to run down to the porters downstairs, two taciturn and burly local men, who were employed to act as both doormen and protectors of we poor geese upstairs but before I could leave the room, Marie had planted herself in front of the door and was staring at me with her mouth hanging wide open. ‘Why did you do that?’ she demanded shrilly. ‘The silly bitch was already done for so why did you let him know that we had seen him?’ She looked pale and, I was starting to realise, furious. ‘You could have sent one of the men out to him. They’d have known what to do.’

I stared back at her. ‘I couldn’t just do nothing,’ I said, flustered. ‘That poor woman…’

‘Never mind that poor woman,’ Marie snapped. ‘What about us? I bet he clocked a right old view of the pair of us standing there at the window like a pair of lemons. What’s to stop him coming back for us one day?’

‘Why would he?’ I asked, but my mouth was suddenly so dry that my voice came out as a pathetic squeak of panic. ‘I could hardly see anything of him so I doubt he could see either of us clearly.’

‘You willing to stay here and take that chance are you?’ she shouted at me, her hands on her hips and cheeks flushed with anger. ‘You happy to stay here in this stinking hovel and wait for him to come for us with his knife?’ She stormed across the room and dragged her battered brown trunk out from beneath her bed then started flinging clothes into it. I noticed one of my own new dresses get dumped inside but decided to hold my tongue and quietly retrieve it later on. ‘You can do as you please but I’m not hanging about this f*cking place! I’m not waiting to be murdered!’

‘Oh for God’s sake.’ I pulled the door open and gathered my nightdress around me then hurried down the rickety stairs to the porters’ tiny parlour below, which was thick with smoke and the stink of rum as the men played cards on the beer stained table in the middle of the room. ‘There’s been a murder,’ I gasped as still holding their cards, they stared up at me uncomprehendingly. ‘Une femme mort!’ I tried again, remembering that their grasp of the English language was somewhat imperfect. ‘Maintenant, dans le yard. Elle est murdered.’ I drew my finger across my throat. That they understood and immediately they pushed back their chairs, which fell onto the tiled floor with a clatter then rushed past me down the corridor to the yard door.

‘What’s this racket about?’ Madame Lisette herself appeared at the top of the stairs, a flamboyantly patterned Chinese silk dressing gown wrapped around herself and her brassy blonde hair hanging in tangled ringlets around her face. Without the deceiving layers of rouge, kohl, powder and paint that she applied with a heavy but practiced hand every morning, she was grey faced and piggy eyed with exhaustion. ‘Maria,’ she said with a resigned sigh when she saw me standing pale and trembling in the hall. ‘I might have known you’d be involved somehow.’ She hurried down the stairs and I took a step back as her heavy musky scent did battle then resoundingly defeated the pungent fumes from the men’s abandoned cigars which lay carelessly on the table amidst the piles of cards and grimy coins. I briefly thought about taking a few of the coins but then reminded myself that the porters were as sharp as tacks and had broken dozens of fingers and noses for far less.

‘There’s been a murder in the yard out back, Madame,’ I said, stepping aside and pointing to show where the men had gone. The door was still open and the cold air was creeping towards us, making me wish that I’d put on a coat before dashing downstairs ‘The porters have gone out to see.’

Madame Lisette stared at me. ‘A murder?’ she snapped, the refined almost caressing accent that she so carefully cultivated vanishing at once to be replaced by broad Bristol tones. ‘In our yard?’ A board creaked on the stairs and we both looked up to see Marie standing at the top, her eyes round with fright and a pair of bright green stockings hanging from her hands. ‘Oh, here she is,’ Madame said, rolling her brown eyes. ‘I suppose you know all about it, don’t you.’ She didn’t wait for a reply but sailed on down the corridor and out through the door.

‘Still leaving are you?’ I whispered to Marie as she came down the stairs.

‘Of course I am, but I heard Lisette ranting on and thought I’d see what was happening first.’ We were creeping quietly down the corridor now and could hear voices in the yard as Madame hissed instructions at the porters in fluent French. As you have probably already guessed, Madame Lisette was about as French as I am but she’d done well for herself when she landed up in Calais and decided to set up a knocking shop there, catering mainly for passing English gentlemen but also any locals who fancied an occasional bit of English meat.

Once a year, Madame took the trip back across the Channel to London and discreetly scoured the brothels of the West End for disaffected girls who fancied a new silk dress and a free trip to France. That’s how she’d found Marie and I. We’d both been working at an elegant establishment on Jermyn Street when Madame Lisette had stepped out of the shadows one day and put her glossy calling cards into our unwilling hands as we walked down to Hyde Park in our best frocks to look for some business.

‘Haven’t I been saying that I want a change of scenery?’ Marie had said, her eyes round and misty as she daydreamed of the Eiffel Tower and handsome French men with glossy black moustaches. ‘I’ve always wanted to go to Paris.’

I snorted. ‘She didn’t say Paris,’ I pointed out. ‘She said Calais.’ I looked doubtfully down at the embossed card in my hand, which had ‘Madame Lisette’s Establishment of Young Ladies’ scrawled across the middle in curly black writing. ‘I’m not sure about this, Marie,’ I said.

‘Well, you can do as you please,’ my friend had said with a laugh and a little dance that attracted admiring looks from a group of passing gentlemen. ‘I’m off to France!’

I remembered all of this as we crept silently down the corridor to the yard, where Lisette was bending over the body that lay spreadeagled on the cobbles. ‘She’ll have to be disposed of,’ she was saying in English to someone who was standing just out of sight. ‘We can’t have word of this getting out. Business is already bad enough without my girls getting ripped apart on our own doorstep.’

Marie and I looked at each other in horror – so it was one of our lot after all. I tried to see who the dead woman was but could only see an outflung pale hand and her booted feet, which lay at odd angles to each other.

‘What about the gendarmes?’ someone said and we recognised the calm Welsh voice of Lisette’s right hand woman, Mrs Davies. ‘They ought to be called, Lisette.’

‘I won’t allow it,’ Lisette replied angrily. ‘I’m not having the police crawling all over this place. They’ve been looking for an excuse to close us down for years – I’m not about to hand it to them on a plate.’ She looked down thoughtfully at the dead woman. ‘No, we’ll have to deal with this ourselves before they get wind of what happened here.’

‘The person who did this should be brought to justice,’ Mrs Davies persisted but I could tell by her tone that she knew there was no way of changing Lisette’s mind. ‘If you do nothing then you leave him free to kill again.’

‘We’ll deal with him in our own way,’ the other woman snapped before beckoning the porters forward and speaking in French to them again, sometimes pointing to the corpse at her feet and other times out across the town.

‘Lisette, no…’ Mrs Davies interjected, sounding shocked. ‘She should have a proper burial.’

Madame snorted. ‘And so she will have. Sailors have been burying their men at sea for centuries and see nothing wrong with it.’

‘But what of her family?’ Mrs Davies stepped forward from the gloom now and we could see that her pale face was drawn with worry. She knelt down beside the dead woman and gently lifted her head, which lolled at a precarious angle as she’d had her throat cut clean through. ‘Her family deserve to know what became of her,’ she whispered to Madame.

‘If her family gave a damn about what happened to her, she wouldn’t have ended up here,’ Lisette replied coldly before turning and walking away, pulling her silk robe close around her shoulders. ‘I’ve given my orders and expect them to be obeyed.’ She noticed Marie and I then and gave a small nasty smile that revealed teeth browned by decades of tea drinking. ‘I suppose that I ought to say that you should let this be a lesson to you both, but what would be the point?’ she said before sweeping past us back into the house, leaving in her wake a sense of unease and a strong aroma of expensive French perfume.

Now that she had gone, I crept out from the shadow of the wall where we had been trying to conceal ourselves and went to look at the body on the ground. Mrs Davies had stood up and was wiping the damp and dirt from her dark grey cotton skirts. ‘I wish that I dared to disobey her damned orders,’ she said wryly, ‘but I’d find my stuff thrown out of a window and myself speedily following it within minutes of the gendarmes arriving at this house.’

‘Who is it?’ I whispered as the porters bent over the body and prepared to lift it into a large sack that had been brought from the dilapidated stable at the back of the yard. ‘She said it was one of her girls.’

Mrs Davies gave a sad nod. ‘It’s Betsy,’ she said. ‘I thought she was in bed but she must have gone out to earn a few more bob.’ She swallowed hard. ‘Whoever it was slit her throat and then cut her open. She hasn’t just been murdered; she’s been slaughtered.’

I could see the body now and instinctively recoiled as I looked down at Betsy’s pale face, which had a dark smear of blood on the chin. Her brown eyes were wide open and her rouged mouth hung slack in an expression of startled dismay. ‘We saw it happen,’ I whispered as I took in Betsy’s torn and bloodstained pale blue dress and her damp blonde hair, which had come out of its usually carefully coiled and pinned bun and was trailing across the dirty cobbles.

Mrs Davies gave me a sharp look. ‘Are you sure, Emma?’ She glanced up to where she knew our window was. ‘It was very dark. Perhaps you were imagining things?’

I shook my head, ignoring the warning pinch that Marie gave my arm. ‘No, I definitely saw something. I saw his knife and everything.’ With much huffing and puffing the porters lifted up the body, doing their best to support poor Betsy’s wildly lolling head and deposited it as carefully as they could into the sack.

‘Did you see his face?’ Mrs Davies asked softly. ‘Think carefully, girl.’

Marie pinched my arm again and after a pause, I shook my head. ‘No, it was too dark,’ I lied, crossing my fingers behind my back as I had used to do as a girl.

Mrs Davies looked at me searchingly for a long moment then gave a satisfied nod. ‘Very well.’

We all turned to watch as the sack was placed carefully onto the floor of Madame Lisette’s rather shabby black carriage, which had plainly seen better days before she’d snapped it up at an auction house. One of the porters, who looked most displeased about having to drive out in the middle of the night, then climbed heavily up onto the perch and gathered the reins in his gloved hands. He then briefly touched his cap to Mrs Davies before driving briskly out of the yard, taking Betsy with him and leaving the other porters to throw icy cold buckets of water and thick handfuls of straw onto the bloody cobbles. Madame Lisette had thought of everything in her determination that this crime should go undetected, it seemed.

‘Come on, let’s go,’ Marie whispered to me, shivering as she pulled her thin red shawl closer about her shoulders. ‘I want to be as far away as possible from this place by this time tomorrow.’

I nodded and followed her back into the house, with one last curious look over my shoulder at Mrs Davies who continued to stand quietly in the middle of the yard, while the porters went about their grim business around her.

‘Poor old Betsy, eh?’ Marie said as we went back up the stairs to our room. ‘I wonder what’s going to happen to her stuff now that she’s gone?’ she added thoughtfully, looking across at Betsy’s closed door, which lay across the landing from our own. ‘She had some lovely things, didn’t she?’

‘Madame will have first pickings no doubt,’ I replied, following Marie’s gaze. ‘We should probably wait until…’ I spoke in vain, of course, as the other girl had already turned the door handle and stolen quietly into the dark room beyond.

‘Are you coming in, then?’ she called out and I heard her crash heavily against a piece of furniture and swear with pain and annoyance.

‘I’ll fetch a lamp then, shall I?’ I said rather resentfully before going into our room, picking up a small gas lamp that stood on a rickety blue painted chest of drawers next to the door and then returning to Betsy’s cologne scented bedroom, where I put it down on the small table beside her carefully made bed, which was covered with a pretty patchwork counterpane that I suspected she’d brought from home.

‘I reckon we’re the first to come in here,’ Marie said with much satisfaction, pulling open a drawer and rifling through poor dead Betsy’s stockings and lace edged petticoats. ‘I told you that she had some nice things, didn’t I?’ she said with as she pulled out some pink ribbed stockings and a petticoat with a blue ribbon laced through the edging which she threw onto the bed. ‘Mind you, she always did look like she thought she was a cut above the rest of us poor sluts.’

‘I’m not sure we should be doing this,’ I said, looking around but not touching anything. It made me feel horribly sad to be standing there in a dead woman’s room, seeing her things lying there just had she had left them and knowing that she would never be coming back.

Marie had moved on to the wardrobe beside the window and threw it open to reveal half a dozen light coloured dresses hanging together with little lavender and rose scented sachets tied to each one by a pale pink ribbon. ‘What does Betsy care?’ she muttered over her shoulder as she pulled a pale lemon yellow dress out, held it up against her then threw it onto the pile on the bed. ‘She’s probably at the bottom of the Channel by now.’ She pulled out a pink dress with a pretty rose bud pattern and added it to the pile. ‘I always liked that one and didn’t think it did anything for her.’

I sighed and opened a drawer, not really intending to take anything but at the same time curious to see her things for reasons that I couldn’t really explain other than that she had been murdered and that, in a way, gave her belongings a certain tawdry glamour. Inside the drawer there was a small blue watered silk box and underneath that, a letter inside an opened envelope. I looked stealthily across at Marie, who was busily trying on bonnets and pouting at herself in front of a tarnished mirror, and picked up the envelope, which was addressed to a Miss Alice Harper at Grosvenor Road, Highbury, London. I slid it into my corset then opened the box, which held a small amber cross and a slip of stained crumpled paper that said ‘To my lovely Betsy from her Alice.’ I looked across at Marie again, who had now moved on to Betsy’s shoes, which stood in neat polished rows at the bottom of the wardrobe, then hid the box in my hand.

‘I hope you’ve got enough money for the crossing back to England?’ she said, buttoning up a pair of shiny red leather boots and turning her slender ankle from side to side, the better to admire the effect. ‘Only, I don’t have enough money saved up for both of us.’

‘I haven’t said that I’m coming with you,’ I replied, quietly closing the drawer. ‘I might stay here for a while.’

Marie stared at me. ‘Are you simple?’ she demanded. ‘That madman could come back at any time. Didn’t you hear what Mrs Davies said about what he did to poor Betsy?’ She pulled off the boot, picked up its fellow and added them to the ever increasing pile. ‘He gutted her. Now I don’t know about you, but I’m not staying here to see if he comes after me with that knife of his.’ She picked up another pair of shoes, pale blue this time, and threw them on to the bed.

‘Where will we go?’ I said, resigning myself to the inevitable.

Marie grinned then. ‘I know just the place…’” — by me, 2011.

I’m not actually as good at writing two books at the same time as I thought I would be so I’m concentrating on the Minette book for now before returning to this one once it is finished. Whitechapel (working title) is going to follow the stories of three young women caught up in the murders – a reforming lawyer’s daughter searching for her lost sister; a terrified young prostitute with something to hide and a young policeman’s daughter (based on my own ancestor – is that allowed?) with a secret ambition.