Mary's Story header

It was a cold night again, as it had been these last couple of weeks as Summer turned into Autumn. A thin, vaporous mist floated in off the River, nothing like the thick peasoupers of Winter or the odious fugs of the Summer when the smell of the effluent from the River wafted around the streets of the East End as if it had a presence of its own. Recent rain had dampened down the rough cobbled streets, leaving little glistening pools everywhere. No pavements ran along the roads here, that was a new idea only possessed in the richer West and City. Here the pedestrians, street hawkers and prostitutes shared the broken cobbles and dirt runnels with the horses and carts of the locals and the richer Hansom carriages of the visitors come to the area to get their cheap jollies.

It was that time of the evening when the people of the day were packing away and the people of the night were just emerging. Cloth-capped barrowmen pulled their loads away from Spitalfields towards their dirty tenements in Limehouse and Stepney whilst ragged prostitutes emerged from the local Whitechapel slums to ply their trade of "six penny tremblers" in the arches and alleys around the edges of the City. Six pence was the usual price of a week’s rent for a tiny room in the unhealthiest of environments, and some of these women struggled to raise even that meagre amount of money, let alone enough to eat or clothe themselves in anything but the dirtiest of rags.

A black carriage with the shine of an infrequent visitor to the tracks of Whitechapel clattered past Mary as she wandered up Commercial Street. She stayed as close to the fronts of the buildings as possible but keeping a weather eye on the upper rooms to avoid any unwanted showers from emptied pos. A splash of dirty water from a puddle shot up her skirt, adding to the muck already encrusted on it.

"Watch where you’re going, mate!" Mary called out after the Hansom as it bumped away.

She was ignored. The people who came looking for their pleasures in this part of London wouldn’t be worried about drenching some malnourished prostitute who was already filthy anyway, not unless they wanted her services. Those with a carriage could afford to ‘shop around’, although depending on their tastes that could mean anything from a toothless hag to a child. Mary specialised in foot trade, those who after a day of work in the City would walk down Cable Street or Whitechapel to find a woman, but wanted to be back in the relative civilisation of their comfortable City streets as soon as they could.

Mary had already had one customer that evening, 9 November, and was making her way back to her room in Miller’s Court to deposit the money in the little box above the firegrate. Mary, tall and blonde, usually had little problem raising the money, but this year had been hard for business and Mary was in debt for the first time since the previous year. She had been renting space in her tiny room to another girl until a few days ago when the landlord had forced Mary to turn her lodger out. Now she needed the money desparately or she could see herself on the streets over the winter.

She turned into Dorset Street and a man approached her from across the road. He was a fat man with a blotchy red face under a slightly battered billycock hat and a long grey moustache, a pail of beer was clasped in his hand. She could see from his expression exactly what he wanted. Normally careful in her choices, under other circumstances Mary would have turned this man away, but she needed the money and she needed it quickly, so she put on her professional smile and faked a Cockney accent as was expected from a cheap East End trollop, even though Mary was from Limerick.

"Allo me dahrlin," she drawled unconvincingly, "wot’s a gent like you doin’ raand ‘ere at this time a’night?" As if she didn’t know already.

The man smiled a pudgey smile, revealing tobacco yellowed teeth. "I’d like the purchase a little of your time if I may." He was sweating slightly, obviously nervous and not used to these transactions, beery breath wafted from his mouth.

"Sure luv, ‘n’ wot can I do for ya?" She would have some sport with this man, make him as nervous as she could and hopefully get it over with quickly.

The man, gaining in confidence, put an arm around her waist, "Well, I don’t really know, what do you do?"

"What do I do?" Mary asked accidentally letting her fake accent drop, "What do you think I do?"

The man looked a little taken aback and his arm dropped from around her waist. Mary realised that she had been a bit too abrupt. Not wanting to lose a client, she moved closer to him and took his arm. "I’m sorry my luv," she said slipping back into street tart mode, "I’ve ‘ad an ‘ard day ‘n’ that. My place is just raand the corna, let’s go inside a get warm."

She began to walk him towards the alley that led into Miller’s Court. Mary Ann Cox, who lived in Miller’s Court near Mary passed them as they went through the archway. The two prostitutes nodded to each other.

*************

Mary Ann Cox watched them as they paused outside no. 13 and Mary opened the door. Mary still hadn’t got a new key, she noticed. She strained to hear what they were saying. She heard Mary, her Irish accent slipping through again, saying something like "I’m going to sing for you" before they disappeared inside. A few seconds later she heard Mary’s voice coming from the room singing ‘A Violet from Mother’s Grave’

"Scenes of my childhood arise before my eyes
Bringing recollections of bygone happy days
When down in the meadow in childhood I would roam…"

After a few moments she moved away and left them to it, she knew very well what came next.

*************

Mary left The Ten Bells at around midnight. She had earned more than six pence from the fat man and had decided to go out celebrating. She had been drinking since about nine o’clock and could barely remember how to walk as she staggered away towards Spitalfields and home.

On the way she picked up another punter and happily pocket more money, by the time she reach Commercial Street it was early in the morning, although the street was still quite busy, even at this hour and in this weather which had taken on a very definite chill. The fog from earlier had grown thicker, obscuring distant objects in an off-white haze which Mary’s inebriated mind probably made thicker still. An indistinct figure began to emerge from the fog, a tall man dressed in black evening clothes, with a cape around his shoulders and a tall, wide-brimmed hat casting a shadow across his face. He moved with a studied elegance and deliberate gait. In his right hand he was carrying a small bag. Mary stopped and leant against a wall watching the man approach in almost total silence.

As he got closer she could make out a few features under the shadow of the hat, a neat moustache, an angular chin and a beaky hooked nose all showed and the whites of his eyes caught the meagre light. Over the man’s shoulder Mary could see George Hutchinson, an old friend since her arrival. She waved to him and waited for the man to reach her.

George watched the man approach Mary and put a hand on her shoulder. She snaked a drunken arm around his waist and started to steer him towards Dorset Street. George followed as discreetly as he could, with all the things that had happened around here lately he didn’t want to see Mary come to harm. They stopped at the entrance to Miller’s Court and George strained to hear their words. The man handed Mary a handkerchief, a red one, and they walked through the archway into Miller’s Court. George, satisfied now that this man was nothing but another punter, turned around and walked off into the fog as the church bells rang out 3:00 in the morning.

*******

The fog was horrendously thick by the time Mary Kelly came back home. She had seen three clients that night since coming out of The Ten Bells. The tall man who had given her his red handkerchief had been courteous and polite. Her other two clients had merely wanted a quick session out under the arches of the railway bridge carrying trains out of Fenchurch Street. A night out in the cold had helped dispel the effects of the beer she had drunk earlier and Mary was now merely muzzy-headed rather than legless drunk. She turned into Miller’s Court and opened the door to her small room. She shut the door behind her and was surprised when the room was suddenly flooded with the light from an oil lamp, yellow and thick. Sitting on her bed was a woman, tall and blonde like Mary, but thicker set and a little less elegant. Mary recognised her immediately as Julia Jones, the lodger she had recently had to turn out.

"Jesus, Julia you half scared me to death."

Julia spoke quietly, she seemed to be cradling something in her lap, "That would have done us all a favour then, Mary Kelly."

"What’s that meant to mean?"

Julia looked up for the first time and lifted up the object she had been cradling in her lap. It was a knife, tapered and about seven inches long. It glinted wickedly in the lamp light. "I found this."

Mary’s eyes narrowed. "Found it?"

"Yes, up in the firegrate, along with your money box. Mary, I know who you are."

To Julia it seemed that Mary almost collapsed in on herself. She sagged and then dropped to her knees, a low groan coming from deep inside her. "Julia, you have to help me, I don’t know what makes me do it. You have to help me." She started sobbing and hunched over herself, shoulders heaving.

Julia stood up and walked over to her. "What made you do it, Mary? For God’s own sake, why?" Mary mumbled a reply which Julia couldn’t hear. "Pardon?" Julia asked and leant over to hear Mary’s quiet words.

"I said, because I enjoy it. Your mistake, dear."

Julia felt something thump into her stomach and warmth welled up from somewhere. Then she felt the knife Mary had extracted from her clothes tear it’s way up to her ribs.

********

The cat landed with a thump on her chest and Elizabeth Prater jerked into awareness.

"Oh hell, Diddles, get off will you?" she swore at the cat affectionately and turned it off onto the floor, making it mewl in protest.

Elizabeth rubbed a tired hand over her forehead. From somewhere outside she heard someone call out "Oh murder!" twice and then a thump. Oh hell, Elizabeth thought, another row there would be no more sleep tonight. Inwardly cursing her bad fortune at ending up in Miller’s Court Elizabeth turned over and tried to get back to sleep.

*********

It was a really cold morning, Caroline Maxwell pulled her worn shawl around her shoulders and closed up the door to her rooms. The fog was hanging around, trapped by the cold air wafting off the River. She had a long day ahead of her up at Spitalfields selling her brother’s cabbages from his small holding on the edges of Hackney Marshes. Every morning started with meeting him at a small coffee shop in Cable Street and then between them lugging his laden barrow up Brick Lane to the Market. Still it kept her off the street and in the relative comfort of her two room lodgings on the edges of the City. She hoped one year to make enough money to cross the City and live in the West End, she had brains and good business sense. As she left her house she bumped into a tall blonde woman she knew from her less fortunate days in Whitechapel.

"Morning, Mary" she called out.

Mary Kelly turned to her and smiled, "Good morning, Caroline. How are you doing?"

"Not bad, if I do say so. What about yourself?"

"Oh, something’s come up. I’m off down to the Docks. With a bit of luck I won’t be back here."

"That’s good news, Mary, I wish you well."

It was an innocuous enough discussion, and Caroline almost immediately forgot the conversation. She left Mary Kelly there in Dock Street and went off to meet her brother.

********

John Maxwell was late this morning. So Caroline treated herself to a cup of thick brown coffee and started chatting to Lizzie Bawdell, an old lady who was a good source of gossip. Lizzie looked pale and disturbed this morning.

"Did you hear, Caroline, about Jack being back?"

"Jack?"

"Yeah, Jumping Jack. He got another girl up in Miller’s Court. Reckon it was worse than ever. He split her right open, took out her chitterlings and made them into a pillow for her. Then he cut her head almost right off he did. Split it right back to the bone."

Caroline went as pale as Lizzie and sipped her bitter coffee to steady her stomach. "Who was it?"

"That poor nice girl Mary Kelly. Skinned her legs he did. They say there was blood all over the walls and stuff. And he burnt all her clothes … …" Lizzie’s monotone drawl faded into a dull mumble and the coffee cup slipped slowly out of Caroline’s trembling fingers, dropping onto the table before bouncing off and smashing on the floor.

Lizzie stopped her graphic description and put a hand out to Caroline. "What’s up dear?"

"Mary Kelly? You said Mary Kelly?"

"Yeah, that’s right."

"Irish girl, tall, friendly?"

"Yeah. Least ways she was."

"But..but, I just saw Mary Kelly. I spoke to her down on Dock Street. Clear as day."

Lizzie’s wizened old face creased into a frown. "Can’t have done, dear. There’s no way that she’s alive not after that butcher’s been at her."

"But I did see her."

"I reckon you must’ve seen a ghost then, ‘cos Mary Kelly is deader than dead can be." Lizzie stood up, with a look of someone who has more urgent news to pass around, and made towards the exit. "Still, I can’t hang around. People to talk to, you know." Lizzie stumped outside whilst the coffee house’s owner grumpily started to sweep up the debris of Caroline’s dropped cup.

*******

A couple of miles away a tall figure walked up the gangway onto a grain boat in London’s Docks, headed for S’Gravenhage. Mary Kelly turned and looked back at the slums of the East End. It had been good while it had lasted, but if a lush like Julia could find out her secret then it was only a matter of time before someone cleverer did the same. It was time for her to move on.

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