A novel by
6th September 1991
In dripping letters of blood, The Hands of the Ripper was scored across the poster as though by some lurking madman. Louise turned away, reminded again of the dark pool of blood surrounding the body of Polly Nichols. The image was still burning fiercely in her head after all this time. Of course it had only been a dream, triggered no doubt, by The Real Jack the Ripper, but it was Harriet who had disturbed her, rather than the murder victim. The effortless transformation of her own self into another seemed too easy - almost natural - she had slipped into a completely different way of thinking as though she had known Harriet all her life, had always bordered on the edge of a different existence. She sat at the crossroads and waited, hovering between self and other. Louise stared out of the glass entrance doors to the foyer. She folded her arms quickly to keep herself from shivering. She felt cold inside, cold with a sinister fear. She felt like she was falling and there was nothing to stop her.
Louise wandered around the empty foyer of the Palentine Cinema where she worked, searching for something to distract her mind. Her eyes roamed relentlessly over the walls; here and there pieces of plaster had fallen away and cracks appeared, tunnelling behind the posters which might well have been put up in an effort to conceal this decay. Louise began to count how many different looks of terror she could spot on the posters around the walls; and then she would award marks of ten for the most convincing. She moved around the room slowly. The wall behind the refreshments counter scored the highest so far, as the cinema had been showing the complete series of small-budget vampire films and this was where all the posters were arranged in a long line.
“What do you think you’re doing, Louise?” Mr. Hawkins, her boss, stood behind her, leaning against the counter where her half-filled refreshments tray was lying beside her elbow. His voice was rough and gravelly, even more so than usual - it was quite painful to listen to it. “I don’t pay you to stand around looking at the posters, you know. Get this tray filled up. The interval’s in a minute and where’s Clare?”
Louise shrugged, moving behind the counter slowly. Mr. Hawkins tapped his rings (he wore one on every finger – huge gold ones, some with black circles in the centre), irritably against the side of Louise’s tray, his little piggy eyes almost hidden beneath his enormous eyebrows as he frowned. Louise supposed that he was about forty-five or fifty, but his insistence on dressing like a seventies pop star seemed to accentuate the frown lines across his brow and the roundness of his beer-belly. He moved with a curious twist and swagger, almost as if he were dancing instead of merely walking. This hip movement of his became exaggerated if there were any women present, including Louise or Clare. When Louise had first started work at The Palentine eight months ago, she had regarded him with a mixture of amusement and pity. By now, however, all her compassion had turned sour, everything had become too familiar.
“Aren’t there any more King Cones in there, Louise?” Mr. Hawkins moved quickly behind Louise as she bent to reach inside the fridge. “Get some more! You don’t want to run out of the most expensive ones now, do you?”
“My God, no. Whatever would I do?” Closing her fingers thankfully around the last of the ice creams wedged at the back of the fridge, she withdrew her hand, swinging round to face her boss. The heavy gold cross, which he wore round his neck, hit her in the eye.
“Christ!” She let the fridge door shut violently.
“Sorry Louise,” chortled Mr. Hawkins.
“You could get nicked for carrying that around, you know. It’s a bloody offensive weapon!”
“Yes, well, let’s not exaggerate.” Mr. Hawkins clapped his hands together as if he were an Infant School teacher hurrying the children along. “Come on, get this tray on! Look sharp!” Beginning to prance away across the foyer towards a door marked ‘Staff Only’; he called over his shoulder, “And don’t forget to take those reel-cases up to the projection room.” He winked at her before disappearing through the door. Louise stared after him morosely.
Later that night, Louise climbed the stairs up to the projection room; she was relieved to find the door open, as it would have been difficult - if not impossible - for her to open the door whilst carrying an armful of reel-cases. She stumbled over an empty cardboard box, which was standing just inside the door and dropped all her reel-cases.
“Shit!” she said, beginning to scrabble around on the floor for the scattered reels of film.
“Here, allow me.” A voice behind her made her leap out of her skin. She turned round but could only see a dark shadow.
“Jesus Nigel, don’t do that, you nearly gave me a heart attack. Why on earth haven't you got the light on?”
“Because I was just leaving when you barged in, sweetheart.” Nigel stood up, pulling the collar of his cream linen sports jacket up so that it covered the straggling edges of his lank brown hair. He didn’t smile. She wondered if he was even capable of it.
“Well, what a bloody stupid place to leave a cardboard box,” she answered.
Nigel shrugged, saying nothing. He began to shove the reel-cases into any gaps he could find in the shelves, which lined one entire wall of the room. She watched him, fascinated.
“Don’t you put them in any order?” she asked.
Nigel swung the last reel-case onto the top shelf, shaking his head.
“No", he said without turning around, “there’s no order.”
He scowled at her impatiently, taking a pair of mirror sunglasses from his pocket and putting them on. Louise stared back at him and saw her own face reflected in his glasses, surrounded by Nigel’s greasy brown hair. She thought for a moment that he was someone else; her eyes were glowing with such ferocity that she almost couldn’t recognise herself. She looked away quickly as Nigel turned, glancing around the room to check that he hadn’t forgotten anything. Seeing that the projector was still on, he went over and switched it off. Then he went out and Louise heard his soft footfalls quickly descending the stairs. She shivered, she only rarely bumped into Nigel and each time she did, he gave her that same disturbing feeling… a slithering unease, a quiet insinuating snake. She suspected that he and Mr. Hawkins were related in some way; they both seemed to have a similar effect on her nerves.
Chapter Six Continued:
As she began to move towards the door, she thought that she heard vague music. She stopped and listened. Where was it coming from? But no, it was not really there at all. The silence encased her, the meat between two slices of bread, and the space between filled with an aching of nothingness. She felt unsteady, on the point of collapse… of complete disintegration. Like a vampire, she would fizzle away to nothing as the light fell upon her. A spark of light caught her eye, a red light; it winked from the side of the projector. Louise moved slowly towards it, puzzled. Hadn’t she seen Nigel just…? She moved slowly through the thick air, layer upon layer, folding in upon itself like a molten Swiss roll from a silver spoon. She felt like a disembodied shadow of herself, the essential soul sliced through with a sharp knife. Her conscious self had become threadbare, shredded; now she didn’t know where she was, she wasn’t in control any longer. Moving slowly, she was moving slowly… as though walking under water. As if wading through the memory of a dream, her limbs moved as if disconnected from her body. The red light, the red light winked and her hand paused on the switch, swimming through time. Her fingers touched the warm body of the projector and lingered over it as though they were sliding over a different surface, an alternative flesh. Falling over the frame of her bones, cascading around her ankles like a soft shell, a vain effort to disguise her body from herself. Standing over the projector, she was drawn down; her head was drawn down and her eye became fixed on the viewer. She heard the music, sensed the atmosphere, and knew the bustle of life like it was her own, even before she actually saw anything. She felt as if she was falling; things shifted around her, the entire projection room was turning inside out. There was nothing to grip on to, essence dripping through her fingers, slipping like vapour through the crevices in the concrete wall. Music filtered through the membrane of her ears with a soft, padded footfall, growing louder and she knew she was there, there, amongst the audience, clapping and singing along with them. She heard singing; discordant voices rose to a shriek in gravelly union, tinged with a ginny hysteria. Colours, many colours argue and fight for supremacy; vivid cotton frocks, cheap materials, jostled one another for the best view of the stage. The blurred figure, the toothless grins, the place vibrating with energy. And she can see herself – that is, she can see Harriet; she can feel Harriet; she can feel the fumes of cheap gin filling her head, the pain in her shoulder where her landlord had pushed her against the edge of the front door and the continual empty ache of her stomach. Her bones seemed to touch each other, she was so thin; they were brittle and weightless, like dried out reeds or quill pens. She realised how weak she was and felt she must sit down. She could feel rivers of sweat running down her back and the tightness of her skin stretched across her face, every pore filled with grime and city filth. The sense of dirt clung to her. Her eyes watered needlessly and she saw everything through a film of moisture; she had to close her eyes tightly to stop the air rushing past her, the headlong flight through time. She was aware of a woman on the stage, wearing a red velvet gown and black fur stole, elbow-length black gloves and a huge hat with a long black feather which drooped down her back and trailed along the stage behind her as she stepped quickly across the boards. She carried an elegant black cane, which she tapped lightly against her hip in time to the song she was singing. Harriet remembered her meeting with Mr. Ross and the spilled blood on the cobbles dripped behind her eyes; was it all a dream? Or had it actually happened? The woman on the stage shrieked out the words, encouraging the crowd to sing along with her, to raise their glasses, abandon their factory lives and immerse themselves in the gaudy decorations around them. The posters and the playbills that covered the shabby walls, the coloured lights and coloured feathers, the discordant music, the pianist dropping his sheets of music every time he turned over a page… the words stretched out like raw and rising dough, mouths wide in unison. Harriet leaned against the back wall of the theatre, having left her friends somewhere in the crowd. She felt dizzy and flushed; she wondered if she had caught a chill from sleeping in doorways and under railway arches, as she had been forced to do the past few nights.
“You alright? You don’t look too well.”
Harriet started, surprised to find a man standing next to her, leaning back against the wall. She hadn’t seen or even sensed his presence there though he stood so close to her, he almost touched her. For a moment she was unsure whether he had really spoken to her or not; for he didn’t look at her. His eyes - which were a startling green - looked oddly out of place in his pale, unshaven face, with his matted dark hair, which obviously hadn’t seen a comb in quite some weeks. His thick, heavy eyebrows formed a straight line across his forehead and they were pulled so far down, that they almost concealed the fragile beauty of his eyes. He wore an old, patched jacket and a large yellow cravat knotted around his neck. The cravat gave him the appearance of a Regency buck; Harriet wondered if he wore it in an effort to distract attention from the shabbiness of the rest of his clothes. If so, it worked admirably.
“I’m alright,” she said finally, trying to assess him by his appearance and attitude towards her for the amount of money he would be willing to pay. But she found it very difficult to glean any information from him, other than that he was neither rich nor poverty-stricken and that he was unmarried, which she could always tell at once. When he finally caught her eye briefly, she dismissed him instantly as a prospective client, seeing something else in that shifty, sidelong glance, though she was not sure what. He looked away from her again and spoke almost without moving his lips, so that his words were disembodied the moment they appeared, lost alley cats wailing amongst the dustbins.
“Well, you don’t look it.” The man’s voice was hoarse, as if he had been standing on a street-corner shouting for hours. Perhaps that was how he earned his living, hawking stolen goods in those parts of Whitechapel that ‘bobbies’ would not venture into alone and then only in daylight. Harriet watched him remove his battered black cap and push his unruly hair out of his eyes. The movement seemed to belong to a young man, though she doubted if he could be much younger than her. As he caught her eye again she felt his glance take in her whole body, the state of her clothes; she felt stripped naked, exposed and left on a rock for the carnivores to feed upon. She looked away from him, “'s'pose yer lookin' for a room.”
It was a statement rather than a question one to which Harriet felt she could say nothing. So she pulled her shawl tighter around her and stared furiously at a group of men standing in front of her, sailors killing a few hours in the East End before returning to St. Katherine’s Dock for their night passage home.
“I’ve got a room yer can use.”
Harriet looked at the man sharply, wondering if she had heard him right. She knew that he would expect something in return. However, she knew also that she was in no position to refuse a reasonable offer.
“'Ow much?” she asked quickly.
In reply the man shook his head, still not looking at her. He gestured with his head towards the doors, which led out of the music hall round to the back of the stage.
“Me name’s Tom,” he said, beginning to move off. Harriet followed, having almost to run to keep up with the man’s strides. She hadn’t noticed before how tall he was; he stood nearly two heads above her, despite her own fairly generous height. As Tom turned into a narrow passageway, which ran away from the music hall itself, he stopped abruptly by an unmarked door and took out a bunch of keys on a chain. He opened the door, glancing quickly left and right as he did so. Harriet hesitated before following him into the room. It was tiny and cramped, with almost every inch of space taken up by an old iron bed, covered with a few tattered, greying sheets and a blanket rolled up to use as a pillow. At the foot of the bed was an obviously unused fireplace and on the floor beside it, a pile of old newspapers, a kettle, cup and a chamber pot. There was a window along the wall facing the door, but it was so blackened by soot and grime that it was impossible to see out. Harriet had to squeeze between Tom and the doorframe in order to distinguish anything through the thick layer of gloom that coated the room like a London fog. She turned as she felt Tom nudge her and press something into her hand.
“’Ere’s yer key.” He replaced the other keys in his pocket and began carefully to retie his cravat, bending to see in a tiny, spotted mirror, which hung on the wall beside him. Harriet watched him, unsure what to do or say. “What’s yer name?” he asked, straightening up and looking at her directly.
“’Arriet,” she answered nervously.
“Well, make yerself at ‘ome, ‘arriet. I’ll be around.”
And he was gone, striding away down the passage, closing the door quietly behind him. Harriet stood where she was, staring blankly at the closed door. Finally she sat down on the edge of the bed and began to unpin her straw bonnet, the mechanical motion of her fingers reassuring her, lulling her nerves into a smooth concoction, laying down all the ragged edges. Numbness washed over her, a great physical relief and she lay back on the bed, which seemed to her to be unbelievably soft and welcoming. She threw both her arms out and closed her eyes, knowing that she was smiling to herself for the first time in several days.
Louise could still hear the distant sounds of the music hall as she opened her eyes. She was lying on her back, with her arms outstretched and at first she couldn’t recognise anything around her. She felt as though she were hanging suspended from the ceiling, or had been stuffed carelessly on one of the shelves along with the reels of film. She felt heavy, huge and clumsy; she could hardly lift her arm, or raise her head. Her eyes stung as if she had been looking into the wind. She sat up slowly. There were several squashed cardboard boxes beneath her. She was sitting on the floor of the projection room, at the foot of the projector; the sounds of the music hall were gradually weakening, until they were nothing more than shelves around the silence, dim shapes like ghosts which touched her still. As she got to her feet she was sure that she could still smell the gin and the greasepaint, still feel the aching fatigue that belonged to Harriet, not Louise. As she reached her hand to switch out the red light on the projector, she noticed that she was trembling uncontrollably. It seemed that she was looking at someone else’s hand.