Buck’s Row: A Victorian Story

© S.J. Carver

Originally published as ‘1888’ in VETO III (2009).

This is another relatively old piece that kicked around quite a while before someone published it, supposedly because of the colourful language. (I remember one editor telling me it was her policy never to publish anything she wouldn’t want her grandmother to read.) I’m pretty sure it was originally written sometime in 1999. It’s interesting to me as an ancestor of Shark Alley, because it was my first attempt at writing a ‘Victorian’ scene, while you can also already see the preoccupation with nested narration and ghoulish storytelling, the profession of Jack Vincent, the ‘Death Hunter’ hero of the novel.

The nights were drawing in now, and dead leaves were mingling with the shit and the sludge on the streets. The year drew towards a merciful end, marred only by the certain knowledge that 1889 would just be more of the bloody same. There was a nip in the air and no mistake. September was just a day away, and with each passing year you felt the cold creep a little further into your joints with a click. The woman swilled the brandy out of the hip-flask she’d just half-inched and felt better. The drunken c—t’d never miss it, and if he did more’s the pity cos he wouldn’t find her again that night.

‘Forgive me, Mother,’ he had said, barely a whisper, as he’d spent up her behind, before tossing some coppers into the filthy street and slouching away pulling at his drawers without so much as a backward glance. Dirty bastard. Nice flask though, oughta be worth a few bob. It might even be silver. Fortified with the thought of a tidy profit as much as with the swizzle, she directed her tired and puffy legs towards home. That last fella was more’n enough for one night; her landlord’d have to wait another day or two for his money, at least until she shifted the hip-flask. I’ll pull ’im off if he gives me any more trouble tonight, she thought, ought to keep the randy old Yid happy.

He’d already turfed her out to get some scratch earlier in the evening. ‘I’ll get three times the money for the night in my pretty new bonnet,’ she had told him, although she didn’t believe it herself. Can you hide forty-two hard years with a scrap of a hat? She doubted it. She had another swig, hitched up her sticky workhouse bloomers and wandered slowly off down the dark road.

The woman felt suddenly hot and bothered. She unpinned her black straw bonnet and let her stringy, prematurely greying hair flop loose around her shoulders, twirling it in her left hand and stroking refreshingly cool iron railings with her right. She ambled onto the Whitechapel Road, letting her eyes adjust to the sudden lamp-light, and let herself be drawn along by the crowd, luxuriating in the nocturnal miasma of sex, sweat, dog-shit, cheap gin, and eel-pie an’ mash that always smelled of home. The brandy made her head swim, but she had another pull regardless, and squinted at the clientele. Could she be arsed to do another? God, no. She squeezed the flask, feeling the pitted surface and thinking how flimping was a better trade than whoring, though the crushers’d ’ave you sure as sixpence if they heard you were rolling the payin’ customers. Best stick with what you know, girl, but always keep your eye out for the main chance, like tonight when the mummy’s boy dropped his booze with his pennies and never noticed. He couldn’t wait to get away from me ’an wipe it off, more fool him, I say.

Through the general clatter she heard a sweet voice raised to heaven, and smiled despite herself, searching the crowd for the singer, a dark lass leaning against a lamp-post like a scruffy, purple angel:

‘A gypsy one day in the sycamore glade

To a maiden her fortune foretold,

Your stars are to blame, pretty damsel, she said,

For the fate I’m about to unfold.

You love a fair youth, I can well understand.

But the men are false as of yore,

And this youth I can read by the lines in your hand,

Will tell you he loves you no more.

The gypsy had gone, and the maid, sad at heart,

Was weeping at what she had heard,

When her swain, with a smile, pushed the branches apart,

And slyly repeated each word.

We may both thank our stars for the warning, I’m sure,

So we’ll make the prediction come true…’

Mary caught the singer’s eye and they bellowed out the last line together: ‘The gypsy has said I shall love you no more, For I can’t love you more than I do!’

The girl flashed a gap-toothed grin at Mary and then returned, deadpan once more, to the job of holding out her hand to an indifferent gaggle of pedestrians pouring out of a penny theatre. ‘Thank you very much sir, thank you very much madam,’ she was chanting, not really looking at anyone in particular. She regarded a couple of brown coins in her equally brown palm and muttered, ‘Miserable sods,’ under her breath as the crowd thinned out, obviously skint or too full of silly songs already. Then she tried another tack: ‘Read your palm for a farthin,’ sir. What about the lady?’ She flicked her long, curly mop of midnight back with a careless hand and thrust her chest forward through the purple taffeta. ‘Good time, sir? Or a bad one – I do both.’

‘No, thank you,’ muttered a shy young sailor, before pulling his collar up and slouching off into the tail-end of the crowd. It was suddenly as quiet as it had just been noisy. The girl’s huge, dark eyes picked out her friend across the street once more and her smile briefly eclipsed the street-lamp.

‘I arsk you, Mary, ’ow’s a girl to make ends meet in this day ’an age with nought but tuppence to ’er name an’ station? I ’ad to suck an’ old boy’s cock just to get summat ’ot in me belly afore I came out.’

Mary cackled and threw the gypsy girl the hip-flask. ‘Have a go on this, you dirty cow, an’ tell me how you’re keeping,’ said she, adding, ‘I’ve told you before to spit an’ never swallow, you’ll be dead of the pox before you turn twenty the rate you’re goin’ on.’

Pikey Gem, for that was her name, just smiled. ‘I know how I’ll go, gel, and it ain’t o’ the pox.’ Mary believed her, Pikey Gem was known for her second sight. ‘Bastard chucked me out again, Mary,’ she was saying, ‘I ain’t got nowhere to sleep but the street this night, ’less I get a bit o’ trade before bedtime.’

‘With your looks and that voice girl, you wanna go up West,’ advised Mary, who was convinced this grimy nymph could be on the stage. ‘Tell you what, you can kip with me tonight. Now read me palm an’ tell me how rich I’m to be in future times.’ She held out a care-worn hand. Gem took it gently and stared intently, Mary felt her tremble slightly. ‘Wot d’you see then?’ she demanded.

Gem looked nervous. ‘I’m not quite sure,’ she said, searching her tired brain for a bit of reassuring patter. ‘You will meet a handsome gentleman,’ she decided, ‘who will take you away an’ make you a duchess.’

‘Save it for the punters,’ laughed Mary. ‘You come by when you’re done here, and we’ll have a bit of supper.’ She was a kind old soul at heart, as long as you kept on her good side (she’d once shived a soldier with his own blade for taking liberties), and felt a strong bond of affection with Gem, ever since the waif had wandered up to her and asked ever so anxiously if she might walk a while with her, as she though a man was following. Gem had been a kid then – still was really – and Mary had protected her fiercely on those rough old streets. There was something about Gem that bought out her soft side; she had that effect on most people. Women wanted to mother her, men wanted to, well, you know.

‘Thanks, Mary, I try my luck a bit longer and then I’ll come and find you. Here,’ she handed back the flask.

Good girl, thought Mary. ‘Don’t leave it too long, luv,’ she said. ‘I’m right dead on me f—kin’ pins.’

‘I won’t,’ said Gem, giving Mary and impulsive hug. Mary gave her a big wet kiss and took her leave, singing a dirty song. Gem shivered, and lit her last cigar. She hadn’t seen a f—king thing in that old girl’s hand. That would mean, no, she didn’t want to think what that would mean.

A sullen breeze sent chip papers and a couple of pages of an old Pall Mall Gazette sailing up the road. Suddenly Gem felt very much alone and, spitting out the soggy cheroot and hitching up her skirts, she trotted off after her friend. By the time she found her, she was already dead.

*

Mrs. Webb liked to watch Alice. It was a lifetime later, and Alice’s defiant good looks and dark complexion was a mirror into her own youth. Alice touched up her lipstick and pouted at the old woman. ‘What?’ she demanded, big eyes bright and beaming.

‘Can’t I admire my favourite grandchild?’ admonished Mrs. Webb. Looking at a pretty face is about the only pleasure I’ve got left.’

This wasn’t true. Granny Webb liked a smoke, a song, jellied eels and the occasional small sherry. She also loved to knit, although she couldn’t get the bloody wool these days. Every waking hour god sent she clicked away making the same, increasingly colourless thing that she had been working on since Dunkirk. Every night, she religiously unravelled it ready for the morning. In much the same way, Granny Webb also loved to knit stories. She was a voracious reader of all manner of popular literature, and an avid watcher of stage and screen. Nowadays, more than ever, folks liked a good story and, without any formal agreement, Granny Webb was the official teller of tales in the underground, surrounded by scruffy kids and edgy teenagers while relieved parents sloped off for a shag or a fag, if they could get ’em. Generally speaking, the shag was easier to come by these days.

Granny Webb looked at the little sea of candle-lit, half-formed faces and wondered how many of ’em were going to live to see their next birthday. She stole a quick glance at Alice, and her eyes filled momentarily with tears. Silly old cow, she thought, go to water over any-bloody-thing these days. At Alice’s age she’d been as hard as the nails on the True Cross.

Alice caught her grandmother’s eye and winked mischievously. The old woman smiled and went into a dream. Would I be that age again? Brown as a berry and twice as smooth and sweet. She thought about her childhood on the streets, always hungry, lonely and scared. Want a touch mister? Two bob. Want some more? Five bob mate. Once is enough, she thought, I’m better off old. She thought about her mother, and then wished she hadn’t. She sniffed and fudged in her bag for her Woodbines. Must be the autumn. Granny Webb didn’t like the autumn. She lit up, and found her way into the story.

‘When I was a mere slip of a girl,’ she began, ‘not much bigger than…’ she looked around and selected a little blonde girl, ‘you!’ touching her nose ever so gently. The little girl giggled. ‘There was a nice Irish lady used to come down our way sometimes by the name of Kate Webster. She was a bit of a stern-looking old bird, but she always had a treat for me and my brother, a bit o’ lardy-cake or an apple tucked away in her coat for us when she came to visit mother. Me an’ my brother, Billy, called her the cake lady though all our friends was scared of her. She was always dressed from boot to bonnet in scrapey black silk, with a knot of hair on her as dark as the devil’s eyes. Mum said she was probably in mourning and kids shouldn’t ought to be so silly. Anyway, she said, black don’t show the dirt so your friends should take note, dirty little devils that they are.’ Granny Webb peered over her glasses, ‘A bit like you lot,’ she said. ‘Now black Kate was a servant girl, which was pretty much all you could do in them days if your family was poor. She lived and worked for some posh old biddy up in Richmond, an old woman with more money than sense called Mrs. Thomas. Kate didn’t like her much, but she’d had a fair few positions by then and at least this one was comfortable. Mrs. Thomas was a widow, so there weren’t no truck with the master of the house trying to vary his diet, if you get my meaning.’ The children obviously didn’t, but one of the mothers glowered.

‘After a while,’ continued Granny Webb, ‘Kate seemed of a lighter spirit when she visited. Old Mrs. Thomas had gone to stay with relatives in the country, she said, and she had a big, posh house all to herself. Now she gave us a penny with our lady-cake, so that we thought we were as rich as Mrs. Thomas. She gave me a beautiful ring once, with a stone set in it as big as a stag beetle’s bum and says, “You’ll be a lady now my little Gemma, don’t you ever be nobody’s servant.” I promised her that I wouldn’t, and I never did a day’s service in me life. Well, not unless you count being married. After that we didn’t see her again.’

‘Mrs. Thomas never did come back from the country. Well, not all of her.’ Granny smiled. ‘The bones of her hands and feet were found at Twickenham,’ (‘Eugh!’ chorused the children) ‘and her torso, that is your body with no arms and no legs and no head, was washed ashore in a hatbox at Barnes. You see my little ones, Mrs. Thomas had never gone away. She’d dismissed Kate from service for stealing, and Kate had chopped her into little pieces with an axe, and started dumping her in the river. This was powerful hard work though, so she cut her corners, boiling the bits in a big copper saucepan after boning them like a fish. The head was the problem. Heads can be recognised afore they rot, that’s what did for Catherine Hayes and her fella. The head was found and displayed until someone thought they knew it, and Catherine was burned at the stake. But that’s another story. So Kate hid the head. Then she pretended to be Mrs. Thomas herself, and sold off all her jewellery around town.’ The children all gasped and made yucky faces. ‘But that wasn’t the worse of it,’ continued Granny. ‘When you boil a body down, whether animal or human, you make fat. Now can you guess what black Kate did with all that dripping? That’s right! She made lardy-cake my dears.’ Granny Webb chuckled like a Weïrd sister. Eat the rich she thought, and good bloody riddens to the lot of ’em. ‘And just so you know I’m telling you the truth, here’s my ring.’ And so it was, a gold signet on the little finger of her left hand with a black garnet set in it as big as a stag beetle’s bum.

‘So what happened to black Kate, Granny?’ they all asked.

‘The neighbours caught on when Kate got greedy and started selling every stick of furniture in the house. Why would Mrs. Thomas want to do that, they all thought. The peelers were called, and they found the bloody axe and Mrs. Thomas’ weeping head buried in the basement. So poor old Kate, who gave me a ring and always had a treat, was arrested and hanged and that’s that. She stands in Madame Tussaud’s now, and we may all go one day and say “How d’you do Miss Kate.”’ If it’s still there, she thought, as another 500-pounder shook the ground above them. Bloody Germans.

A drunk sergeant-pilot untangled himself from a row of snoring bodies and said, ‘You should tell ’em about Saucy Jack, Gran, it’s part of their cultural heritage.’

‘I don’t like that one,’ Granny Webb said flatly.

‘Please yourself,’ said the sergeant-pilot, who was shot down over the channel shortly thereafter, which only goes to show.

‘Who was Saucy Jack, Granny?’ cried the children.

‘No-one my dears, no-one at all,’ sighed Granny Gem. The bombs thumped overhead and the East End burned. It was going to be a long autumn.

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