A novel by
2nd September, 1991
Louise rubbed her eyes again. It was as if she had sand or dust in them, some grainy substance to prevent her from ever seeing things properly again. Perhaps she was simply tired. Dropping The Real Jack the Ripper on the floor beside her bed, she reached across and switched off the lamp. She was thinking of the Sandman, stalking through Victorian children’s picture books as she fell asleep. Only the figure seemed to be bordering on something else; the bag of sand slung over his shoulder wavered and could have been anything, a heap of clothes left on the cobbles for the laundry woman to collect the next day. But then she moved closer and she saw the blood.
Harriet was the first perhaps, to discover the mutilated body of the murderer’s victim as it lay upon the cobblestones as if waiting its own resurrection. Harriet had gone over to the bundle to search through it, hoping to find some pretty rags to wear, as she couldn’t afford any new ones at the moment, not even another shawl to wrap around her emaciated shoulders. But she had found the bundle to be flesh and the red strips of cotton blood! She had backed away clutching her hand as though she had touched not a body but a contagious, disease ridden thing. She didn’t scream or even cry out, though she recalled talking with this woman in The Ten Bells only a few days earlier. They had not been great friends, both working in different areas of the East End; but still, Harriet knew that this could easily have been her, ripped open and left to die on the cobbles. But she felt certain that she would not have surrendered her grip on life quite so easily. She knew that Polly Nichols had been at least twenty years older than she herself; would her own comparative youth really have shielded her from death? And Harriet also knew that her own gaunt face was as pale as the dead woman’s beneath the grime of the city, her grey eyes dull with fear. She retreated behind the wall of an old, decaying building nearby. Sitting on the floor, hunched up by the window, she waited for someone else to come and discover the body and call the police. She could not do it herself. She could only watch, as the sky grew lighter.
Harriet was tired. She had been roaming the streets of Whitechapel, Bethnal Green and Shoreditch since nine that evening, looking for business. Tomorrow was rent day again and as she was already twelve shillings behind she fully expected to return home to find her few remaining possessions pawned by the landlord and the room let to someone else. She had found only two punters that night; one was a middle-aged worker from the docks, the other a young sailor just arrived home. She was glad that she still had the looks to attract the younger ones. She had not yet lost all her charms completely, not like that poor old bag of bones outside. Harriet was tired and she closed her eyes.
She was awoken from her doze by the sound of footsteps directly outside the glassless window. As she listened the steps gradually halted. They were accompanied by a tapping noise, which continued. Harriet raised her head from where it had been resting against a wall. The pain of the muscles in her neck almost made her cry out. She heard the man outside strike a match, and watched it whiz past her nose as he threw it in through the open window when he had lit his cigarette. The tapping noise started again and Harriet wished that the man would move away so that she could look out and discover what the sound was. Early morning light had begun to seep in through the window now, and she wondered how many hours she had dozed, one maybe two? She wondered if the police were here yet. Could she hear men’s voices coming from further up the street? She listened, absently picking pieces of plaster from her long, dark hair.
At last the man’s foot crunched wetly, as if he were turning on his heel. Harriet heard him walk slowly past the window. She stood up carefully, keeping in the shadows and peered after him. Through the half light of dawn she could see the back of a well dressed gentleman in a tailored black coat treading deliberately along the wet cobbles as though he were walking to the hangman’s noose. He wore a silk top hat and dark gloves; in his hand he carried a shiny black cane with a silver handle, which he tapped steadily against all the walls of the buildings as he passed them by. Harriet noticed that a grim huddle of policemen surrounded the body of her former acquaintance, and she cursed herself for having fallen asleep; how much of the drama had she missed? She was appalled to realise how detached she felt now, as if her initial fear had been crushed. The policemen stood around, silent and morose, their capes gleaming like newly exposed skin in the sinister half-light, their truncheons tapping uselessly against their thighs.
Harriet watched from the broken-down window; she was able to see the scene clearly from her position. She watched as one of the policemen detached himself from the group and walked towards the approaching gentleman, as if to greet him. The rain glistened over the dark-blue of his uniform, highlighting both the colour of it and the shininess of the brass buttons. She could even make out drops of moisture nestling in the thick blackness of his beard and side-whiskers, decorating his otherwise pale and expressionless face with sparkling gems. Harriet thought that he looked as though he was walking under water very slowly, as if in part of some strange ritual dance. The smart man stopped and turned to face the policeman; she could see now that he was a young man, a very young man. He was clean-shaven and stood almost a foot smaller than the policeman. Despite this, the policeman touched his helmet deferentially before he spoke.
“Morning Sir,” he said and his voice carried well to Harriet’s ears. The surrounding fog seemed to encase the sound, to encapsulate it, pickle it like sugared fruit in a tall glass jar, preserved in spirits for all to see.
“Morning,” the young man replied, without inflection. He was smoking a cigarette steadily, perhaps to calm his nerves. Though, to Harriet, he didn’t seem to be in the least bit nervous or even concerned by the policeman’s appearance; his bright blue eyes pierced through whatever they touched mercilessly, glinting with a hard, ironic intensity. The humour lying just concealed there told Harriet that he hadn’t yet seen the mutilated body near him, surrounded by policemen as it was.
“Nasty business.” The policeman gestured with his head towards the cluster of his associates. “Murder, I’m afraid,” he continued, taking out a notebook and pencil from his inside pocket. Harriet closed her eyes briefly; she had known that woman. The policeman then stroked his sparkling handlebar moustache with the tip of his pencil, gazing thoughtfully at the young man. “Do you mind if I ask you a few questions, Sir? Just routine,” he added nervously.
The young man returned the policeman’s gaze without emotion.
“Of course not,” he replied quickly. “Please do.”
The policeman nodded, pleased.
“Your name, Sir?”
Harriet watched the young gentleman remove his hat. He appeared younger than ever without it, a child trying to act grown up. He scratched the back of his skull, his straight, short hair gleaming like oil in the day’s new light.
“And your address?”
“Sixty Holloway Road.”
Ah, thought Harriet to herself, thought he couldn’t be a local. Must be on his way home from some posh West End club. The policeman obviously thought this too, for he looked up, after scribbling down Robert Ross’s address.
“And may I ask what you’re doing here, Sir? At…” The policeman consulted his watch, returning his eyes critically to the young man’s face. “Four thirty in the morning?”
There was a pause. Harriet watched the elegant figure of Mr. Ross lean heavily on his cane, gazing off into the distance as though he were trying to remember his own identity, to recognise the city around him. For a moment she thought that he looked directly at her; she drew back into the shadows quickly, her nerves suddenly on edge. But Ross turned away, throwing his cigarette stub onto the cobbles and grinding it to death beneath the heel of his polished boot. A strange sense of unease crept over Harriet, a dull recognition of the action, as though it had featured significantly in some almost forgotten dream from her childhood. The young man seemed to her to be playing for time. He watched his cigarette fizzle and die on the damp ground without curiosity.
“I’ve been… to a party.” Ross spoke with great deliberation, slowly and heavily, as if to an idiot. He gave the impression of possessing both great knowledge and experience. “At Tite Street, Chelsea.”
The policeman looked up sharply. He tapped his teeth with his pencil.
“And there are people who can vouch for your whereabouts at this party, Sir? Reliable people?”
Ross paused again and Harriet understood his dilemma. While wanting to provide himself with an alibi he did not, naturally enough, wish to involve his friends with the police. Though they would be able to look after themselves. Those with money always could. And Chelsea – the West End in general – was the home of the rich, the decadent, of the notorious. She had been there a couple of times with gentlemen, real gentlemen, who occasionally came to the East End to sample for themselves the fights, the poverty, the gaiety and bustle that went with it. The West End had seemed to Harriet an intimidating and awesome place, full of wealth, colour and texture. She had wanted to linger over sparkling shop windows laden with sugared confectionery, or lengths of chiffon or velvet and hats decorated with ribbons, yards of lace and silk flowers. She had felt that she could only stay there so long, drinking in the spectacle; for not only was the scent too heady for her thin veins, too intoxicating, but she was also aware that she had no right to be there. She felt awkward, an intruder, she had crossed the forbidden threshold; she had transgressed.
“Oh yes,” replied Ross finally and Harriet could tell that he was trying his hardest to conceal a smile in these grim circumstances. “Many reputable people saw me. Would you like the full address?”
“Not necessary, Sir.” The policeman closed his notebook with a snap, returning it to his inside pocket. For the first time he smiled fleetingly; it seemed that he was satisfied with the young man’s story. Though she could not say why, Harriet felt absurdly relieved. She yawned and shifted her position carefully; perhaps she would be able to leave this grisly scene now, under cover of the young man’s exit. For now he appeared to be moving away, tapping his cane against the cobbles. But the policeman stopped him, touching his helmet again.
“I’d get a cab if I were you, Sir. It’s a nasty business.”
Ross shrugged and glanced over at the huddle of policemen surrounding the body of the murdered woman. Harriet wondered how much he could see. She shrank back as the policeman hurried past her, evidently trying to find a cab for Mr. Ross, who followed him slowly. He seemed reluctant to leave the scene of the crime, as though he could not really believe in its reality and wanted to watch it pop and disappear, explode in the early morning light, transient as a soap bubble, fleeting as the policeman’s own slight smile. Ross’s steps were unhurried; he lit another cigarette as he ambled past the building in which Harriet was concealed, his black cane tucked neatly under his arm. She waited for him to throw the dead match in through the window, but he didn’t. He looked directly at her - she froze. He stood there, holding the dead match between his fingers, staring at her. She couldn’t move, she heard the clatter of horses’ hooves and the policeman’s voice.
“Here’s your cab, Sir.”
Ross blinked and turned slowly to the policeman, dropping the dead match onto the cobbles.
“Thank you,” he said as he moved out of Harriet’s sight. She heard him climb into the cab and saw the policeman pass the window once again to rejoin his colleagues. She was still unable to move, her fear was huge and vague but with the immediacy of one who has been standing near to a grisly murder victim for any length of time. She heard the horse’s hooves again; the cab was turning round, right outside the window. It stopped and she heard Ross’s voice again, low so that the policeman wouldn’t hear.
“Hey! Can I offer you a lift?”
Harriet looked back at the policeman’s ambling figure, his broad back getting smaller as he moved away from her towards the scene of the murder. Most of his colleagues had dispersed by now and were examining the surrounding buildings, loose cobbles and drains along the street. The grey morning poured its watery light over the body of Polly Nichols, whose throat had been slit right open and the blood mixed with rain that gleamed darkly over the cobbles. Harriet suddenly turned and clambered out through the window and into the cab, which had drawn up alongside. She caught her cotton skirt on the edge of the window frame and heard it tear as she tugged it free. Harriet gazed anxiously back at the pathetic red rag hanging on the window frame, waving slightly in the breeze.
“Where do you live?” asked Ross gently.
She pulled her head back inside the cab quickly, remembering the policeman behind her and then there was the Jarvie too. Ross was risking a lot, it seemed; he would be severely compromised if anyone he knew saw them together.
“I live on Fashion Street” she answered.
Ross nodded and pushed up the trapdoor on the roof of the cab with his cane to shout instructions to the Jarvie. When he had sat down again, he removed his hat and gloves and leant back against the seat with a deep sigh. Harriet played with the fringe of her patterned shawl, watching him nervously. He continued to smoke his cigarette, not looking at her.
“Thank you… fer yer kin’ness t’me Sir,” she muttered finally, uncomfortable with the silence. He looked at her and his face broke easily into a grin. It seemed a relief to him to drop this pretence of maturity.
“Well, that may be, Sir, but… however it is, I’m glad yer come along when y’did.” Harriet stared at her restless hands, twining like a Medusa’s head in her lap. Her thin fingers were white with cold. “I was… I was very much frightened.”
Ross nodded, saying nothing. The murder was unmentionable.
“See… I knew ‘er,” Harriet said suddenly.
“I spoke wiv ‘er only a few days ago. Just a few words… the time o’day, yer know.” She picked at the hem of her dress, biting her lip. “An’ now look at ‘er. Murdered… in such an ‘orrible way, too. I’ll admit, it’s frightened me somethin’ terrible, Sir.”
“Well, you’re safe now,” said Ross, putting his arm around her shoulders. She stiffened at once; but this was quite a different touch from that which she was used to, intended simply for reassurance. “Yours is a dangerous profession,” he added.
She looked at him sharply but he was gazing out of the window again at the rows of bleak slum houses, crowded together into every conceivable space, every yard, alley and court. He had spoken of prostitution as if she had told him she was a dressmaker or a cook. She liked this attitude of his. She had never come across it before.
“What’s your name?” he asked suddenly.
“’Arriet,” she replied, automatically guarded.
“Well, Harriet here we are at Fashion Street. Which number is it?”
“Number twelve, please!” Ross called to the Jarvie. He then turned and grinned at her once again; she thought that he had a lovely face, with its youthful naivety and candour, almost concealing the sharp wit in his clear eyes. “I hope to see you again, Harriet. Here’s my card.” He gave her a small white square of card, which she stared at blankly, not being able to read what was written on it. But she kept it anyway. “I’ll watch you go inside. Goodbye!” he called, as she slithered down from the cab and ran up to the door of the house in which she lodged. Turning in the front doorway, she waved to the cab as it carried on towards Brick Lane and north to Shoreditch. She could just see Ross waving his top hat in her direction as she tried to open the front door. As she had expected, the landlord had bolted it from the inside so that she could not get in. She considered pounding on the door until he opened it, but decided that causing such a fuss would just make him even more bad tempered than he was already. So she crouched down in a corner of the doorway, trying to shelter from the rain, and waited.