Someone else’s justice

Brighton 1854

There was blood on the straw mattress in the corner and I saw it.  It didn’t have to mean that.  It could have been the leavings of some woman at her time of the month.  It could have been the place where one of the stray dogs had finished off a cat caught in the alley.  It didn’t have to mean what it meant.

I had arrived at the building well after dark.  I was faint with exhaustion.  The rain was fine but had soaked my wool coat.  There was nothing I wanted more than a dry space with a fire where I could close my eyes.  And she said that was mine for a few pennies. The woman who showed me up the stairs had a soft bun of red hair at the nape of her neck.  Her skin was pale as white wax and her eyes dark.  I wondered if she were safe alone in this grim place.  She had a long back that seemed to lengthen as she walked ahead of me – her face sliding across my vision when she turned to check that I was following.

But my senses were unreliable – the very walls were bowing and the floor lurching beneath me like the sea.  The candle in her hand guttered as we entered the room and I was dimly aware, in the light of the fire, that there was a mattress close to it and another in the dark corner by the window.  She held out her hand for the coins and I pressed them into her palm, bolted the door behind her and fell asleep in moments – my damp coat steaming gently in the heat from the dying flames of a few pieces of coal.

It was in the grey dawn light that I got up to relieve myself and saw the dark staining on the other mattress.  I pushed the sight away from me.  I needed more sleep.  I knew there might not be another night like this – when I had begged enough money to break my journey in warmth and solitude.  If I had left then, might I have followed the coast road on into Kent and found my way to Folkestone?  Might I have boarded a ship to France and have worked through to the harvest on some Normandy farm, as I had planned?  Saved money and slept under broad, star-speckled skies?  Walked over warm soil with clean hands?  I shall never know.

What happened was that I slept on in that filthy room in the back streets of Brighton.  Dawn turned to morning and the warm summer sun pushed itself high in the sky.  The crack of wood on wood – harsh and sudden – woke me.

‘Open this door!’

My first thought was of what I had fled.  The house in London.  My father’s dented skull on the fender and his body covered by the hearthrug that I had tugged from under his heavy legs.  The parakeet in the cage swinging in the window and the quiet click of the front door as I left.

But what came for me was someone else’s justice.

A constable gripped my wrist and, as he hauled me into the street, I caught just a hint of the salt in the air before the first gobbet of slimy spit hit my cheek and I realised the danger. Lying under a blanket in the gutter was a body – I recognised the uncurled copper of her hair, spread across the cobbles.  And, between the cobbles, the darkness of blood.

‘Butchered her in the house!’

‘Dragged her out here to cover his crime!’

A stream of young men poured through the open door of the lodging house.  I heard their boots on the stairs.  The window of the upper room was heaved up on the sash and one shouted.

‘See the mattress from his room!’

There it was.  Rough sacking and red gore.  The thing falling apart even as he held it up.  Like a slaughtered scarecrow collapsing and spilling its innards.  The constable twisted my arm and hissed into my ear.

‘If you want to see tomorrow then you come along.  Now.’

He was a big man and I stumbled often as we rushed through the alley ways.  Boys ran alongside – their eager little faces flashing up at me and their breath hard.   The night, my arrival at the lodging house, played again and again in my mind’s eye.  The woman had shown me to the room.  I had slid the bolt across.  The mattress that was her death bed was inside – red with her heart’s blood.  The woman was surely already a shape in the alleyway – in the deep black of the rainy night.  So how had she opened the door to me? She was dead.  She was death to me.

It was in Foul Air Street, where the swine are hung, their throats split, that three men stepped forward and pulled me from the constable.  One pinioned my arms by my side as the others worked with the rope.

I was strung from the beam of a slaughterhouse.  It was swift, without the bother of a trial. I was named murderer.  Murderer I am.  As the darkness swallowed my vision I saw them beneath me.  The red –haired keeper of the lodging house was arm-in-arm with my father – laughing.  They waved as I swung.

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