A novel by
31st August, 1888 - Whitechapel, East London.
The whole of London is blanketed beneath a thick screen of fog. It’s not yellow, as it is in the paintings of Grimshaw, shrouding the filthy streets and the stinking Thames: but it’s transparent, darkened to the night and yet still there, a hazy aura to the senses. And through the senses he will work, he will feel. Smell the melting poppies as they hang suspended in the air, taste the sickly-sweet droplets as they permeate your skin and luxuriate there. The early hours are here and he stalks through the deserted streets of Whitechapel, his gleaming black hair plastered over his skull.
It’s just like the pictures you still see of him reproduced in crime or murder books - artists’ impressions, never photographs. He was always too quick, too stealthy, and too ephemeral to be captured by the lens of a camera. Between them he would have slid, leaving a red smear. It’s the legend he has created around himself that endures, and nothing more. He measures his footfalls with great care and deliberation, moving away from the Whitechapel Road and onto Bucks Row with a purpose hanging like a shredded cobweb before his eyes. So that the bloodhound’s vision is never clear, it’s always veiled by threads. He pauses at the corner, stroking his moustache with thin, nervous fingers. Through the fog and the darkness he can just see her. She stumbles against some iron railings further up the road as she walks away from him and she mutters something beneath her breath. The night and the fog together compress the sound so that it seems unreal – in this place, it does not belong.
She doesn’t hear his silent footsteps as he moves towards her, but leans against the only gas-lamp on the street, the light thrown over her like a robe. With her cheap straw-hat perched drunkenly on her head and her staggering gait, it’s easy for him to identify her as one of the thousands of East End prostitutes. The night is crowded with them, especially later, when they are being turned out of public houses and are searching for some doorway or lodging-house where they can spend the night, perhaps in exchange for sex. These women all look the same after so many years of degradation: their faces are always lined with hardship and gin, hardness and despair drawn deep into the wrinkles there, the toil, the continual struggle for survival. This woman is no different, no different at all. She clutches her shawl around her as though it were her last protection, leaning back against the lamppost. As he moves towards her, she raises her gaunt face up to the light, closing her eyes; he sees that her lips are moving silently and he wonders if she is praying or singing. The light accentuates the shadows of her face and he realises that she is old, perhaps past fifty. He knows that she cannot see him yet: he is still in the dark, she in the light. That straw bonnet she’s wearing looks new, it stands out against the other drab brown rags she’s got on. A gift from a soldier, perhaps? A payment for favours given?
Pausing in the shadows, he removes his heavy frock coat and drapes it over his arm. There are two reasons for his doing this; one becomes clear as he approaches Polly Nichols, moving suddenly into the light. He watches her blink her eyes and try to focus on him; he smiles at her as he approaches, making it obvious to her what his intentions are. She grins suddenly in return; here is the customer she has been waiting for! Her thoughts turn away from her broken marriage and lonely life with a jolt, she will not be sleeping on the streets tonight.
“Evenin’ Sir,” she says as he comes nearer and has already begun to hitch up her skirts as she walks towards him.
They are standing in a gateway leading into a yard now: this, he decides, is as good a place as any. He says nothing to Polly but touches her neck lightly, running his fingers over the scrawny surface, caressing her. She smiles and moves closer to him: she isn’t aware of anything in this long moment but the gentle sensation of skin on skin. He doesn’t smile back. The other hand still grips the knife hidden beneath his coat. His left hand transforms itself quite suddenly from a caress to a brutal pressure on her windpipe. Dropping the coat and knife onto the cobblestones, he frees his other hand to assist in the strangulation of Polly Nichols. Within two minutes she is dead. She puts up no struggle; indeed, she seems to surrender up her life to her attacker with complete indifference. He continues to force his fingers down on her throat, ensuring that the last breath is squeezed from her and she slumps against him. As he lays her body down on the cobblestones he throws down his coat and reveals the knife. Slashing her throat with the eight-inch long blade, not once but twice, he watches the blood spill from the wound and river along the gaps between the cobblestones. With half-closed eyes, he plunges the knife into Polly Nichols’ lower abdomen and brings it up over her hip, as though he were gutting a fish. Still not satisfied, he repeats the action, this time ripping his victim straight along the centre, splitting her into two halves. Then, kneeling beside the body, making sure that his own shadow doesn’t come between the gaslight and his work, he begins to disembowel her.
Afterwards, he stands up and looks at his bloodstained hands. He purses his lips slightly and clicks his tongue but makes no other sound to disturb the stillness of the night. His forearms right up to the elbows are smeared in blood and so is his shirt, although he had taken the precaution before he began his work, of rolling up his sleeves. However, it’s a dark night and there are so many slaughterhouses around Whitechapel anyway, that no one will remark on his appearance if they see him. He will simply be taken for one of the many night-workers from one of those abattoirs. He listens, listens for a sound, a stir, a movement in the darkness. There is only silence… a silence so complete that he wonders for a moment where he is, what brought him to this place? He holds the eight-inch blade in his hand and he stares at it without comprehension. It could be a toy and he a child wondering what to do with it.
Blood drips from the knife onto the upturned face of his victim: the unhurried motion of it brings him suddenly to his senses and he picks up his frock coat from the cobbles nearby and puts it on. He buttons it, concealing the crime within - now he can pretend he is a gentleman again. Crouching by the body of Polly Nichols, he plucks at the edge of her brown linen skirt, trying to find a comparatively clean area with which to wipe the blade. As he does this, he hears footsteps and voices. The silence gives them an uncanny quality, as though they were coming from inside his head. Straightening up quickly he can feel the sweat beginning to prickle on his upper lip. As he turns away, he notices his victims’ black straw hat has rolled a few feet away from her head and lies there in the gutter, upside down but undamaged, a finishing touch to this work of art. Thrusting both his hands and the knife into his pockets, the murderer hurries away in the opposite direction so that he will not have to pass whomever the footsteps and voices belonged to. He could not risk being remembered when the murder is discovered.
As he moves silently through the back streets of Whitechapel, he tries to keep his mind as blank as he can, an Augustan mask of innocence. Though it has been so hot all day, stiflingly hot, now the sky has been ripped open to allow through the cool air, the cold wind, the sharp edge of a knife-blade. The murderer glances around, disturbed by his metaphors, but he need not worry. He has the bland appearance of every middle-class male of this era. Added to this is the extraordinary passivity of his looks; this man appears not to have the feeling within him to drive him to any such livid action, but appearances can be deceptive. This man fears for his sanity. At times he is sure that he is mad.
He turns from the Whitechapel Road along Leman Street, heading towards the Victoria Embankment. He will be glad to leave both the stench and the oppressive poverty of the East End behind. Each breath is difficult to take without coughing, each lungful of air heavy and sick with factory fumes, industrial grime, human filth and waste. His own lodgings in the Temple area are a little further west, where the wealth is just beginning to show. He takes out his fob watch and looks at it. It’s past three in the morning and he longs for his bed. He should have time to snatch a few hours sleep before he gets up to go to Dorset to play in a cricket match tomorrow, then no one can possibly suspect him.
Turning his great, melancholy eyes to the sky, he gazes into the darkness above and around him. He tries to recall the events of the past hour to mind but it is impossible. It’s all a closed book to him now; he cannot even remember the face of the woman he has just killed. He thinks that these occurrences, these actions of his, that they have ushered in some massive, seasonal change… he thinks that they might signify the end of summer.
For the heat of August is wasting away and already autumn has begun.
Now go to Chapter two…