All entries for Tuesday 16 June 2009

June 16, 2009

A Slice of Life

The London Chronicle

No. 20, 236                                                        Friday, July 11, 1834                                 Price 7d

CENTRAL CRIMINAL COURT – THURSDAY

{Before Mr Baron Geoffrey}

BURGLARY

         

MUTE CONFESSION. – Joseph Brooks, 26, stood charged on the indictment of burglariously breaking and entering a dwelling house, at Southwark, and stealing 37s. and five silver spoons, the property of Judge Hathaway.

          Mr. Clarence conducted the prosecution.

          The prisoner was defended by Mr. Elleman.

          The prisoner has been convicted of being drunk and incapable, of gambling, and within the past two years, larceny, resulting in one month’s imprisonment. His life has been a wretched one. Penurious and homeless from childhood, he is thought to have been involved in numerous illicit activities for which he was never arrested.

          Henry Dartfield, the arresting officer, said: About quarter-past ten o’clock on Wednesday, the 9th inst., while patrolling the Borough-road, I heard a crash which seemed to come from a nearby alleyway. When I arrived at the apparent source, I identified a broken window, and the sound of footsteps from within the violated premises. Prisoner attempted to elude me as I peered inside, but revealed himself to be at the far end of the alleyway when he stepped on a shard of a discarded bottle and yelped. (Laughter.) I fast pursued him, and then there was another crash. A cracked

lanthorn was later discovered in the vicinity. I apprehended the prisoner shortly, and abstracted the stolen booty from his person.

          Two witnesses corroborated the testimony of Mr. Dartfield. The learned counsel then imputed the prisoner with being obtuse to the law, and stated that the one month served in gaol had been insufficient to improvement in his character. He requested that the prisoner be punished with a more severe sentence than is usual in consequence of his continual disregard for authority and degenerative morality. The bench appeared grave when listening to these remarks, and the prisoner gave the impression of being resigned.

          The defendant merely reiterated the prisoner’s apology, and represented that the prisoner’s crimes were of a petty nature. Addressing the bench, he recommended the prisoner to mercy. The learned judge said: It has been determined to make an example of persons convicted of such felonious crime, in response to its lamentable increase. The accused was asked if he had anything to say.-As throughout the trial, he held his silence.

          Prisoner sentenced to gallows.

♦♦♦

Half her washing remained in its wicker basket. Her apron was draped over the dining room chair. The window welcomed the mounting noise, and Catherine’s elbows perched on its warm metal frame.

          From the flat, she viewed the gallows. At its mid-day vantage, the sun’s glaring light made every detail precise. It shone upon the hundreds lost to a Sunday’s drunken mirth; heated the reek of festering filth, and lit the emptied streets. The city square held the masses with the promise of an isolated snap.

          A cheer broke through the stench of alcohol and sweat. The convict, his eyes turned from the raucous throng, was being led by two burly guards up the gallows steps.    

Catherine studied the thief, as he stumbled across the wooden floorboards. His upper body slumped onto his bent knees, and his limp arms were trussed at the small of his back. A gaunt, pale little man declared the crime, while the convict stood submissive before the crowd. Catherine gazed on the convict’s features, and as at every hanging, imposed her memories.

There was no set order to the memories; only the routine that they would come. Often, Catherine thought of Albert. Her recollection of his face had become cloudy, but her sense of him was sharp. He was strong, rich, and adventurous. She liked to remember her walk home from the water pump, where she would eye him in his royal blue coat declaiming to his peers. Every night before the walk, and every morning as she made her way, she had attempted to martial the courage necessary to draw his interest. And always, if they took the time to notice, her neighbours saw her return to the flat with a disappointed step.

One morning, Albert wasn’t there. Catherine tried to steel herself, to deceive her instincts. She never saw Albert again.

Sometimes Catherine wondered absently: would he have made a good husband? Would their children have flourished? But she never sought an answer. She was without husband, without children. Her love had been snatched from her, so she clung to her melancholy.

Today though, Catherine thought of her landlord. He had harangued her parents for over a fortnight, after raising the rent unfairly. Her parents couldn’t pay. It is not an immediate concern, her father had said. Food, drink and fuel cannot be bargained. Another night in this poxy pit can. Without any evidence, she knew her father was in ‘The King’s Head’, quaffing the last drops of her mother’s affection.

A black cap was placed over the convict, extinguishing his sight. The crowd jeered, from the street and the rooftops. In the convict’s pitch mask, Catherine instilled her resentment. She envisaged her landlord under the hood, imagined him trembling as his head was threaded through the noose… which transmuted into her father, slouched in the pub, insensible to his tiny world… and to mother, who avoided her fears by attending to father’s demands…

The convict was ushered toward the noose. The crowd seemed to rear, scenting exultation. Catherine inspired. Bloodlust was in the air; the Devil had come to collect his due. The noose was laid on top of the convict’s shoulders. His body was rigid, his fists clenched. As expected, Catherine felt her thoughts contract and focus, until they were dominated by one vision: her father, in the pub, squandering their money: an image still and eternal. The throng roared abuse at the criminal, hurled taunts and damnations; furious music, its sly hand breached and manipulated Catherine’s emotions, raising her mind beyond reason. Eternal. Always. Forever.

Which meant it worked. A crack pricked her anger, and the prospect of climax began to trickle away. Her first memory of the landlord was him harassing her parents; and her father had never been rich, never tried to better his standing. Yet they’d never been cast into the street. And when Catherine searched herself, she could muster no belief that they would be now.

The screams for justice rushed past as she floated down to reality, seemed trivial in their fleetingness. Her cheeks cooled. On inspection, everything she knew seemed trivial.

Catherine’s sight fell to the street that forged past the flat. Albert’s absence from it had once conjured a nostalgic yearning. It had been wrong for Albert and the street to be separate. Now, it looked right. Catherine considered the pub: three doors down, in half an hour it would be packed full of young, working bachelors. But they were lewd, lecherous men, who couldn’t eliminate dreams of Albert. She had missed her moment.

The crowd’s intensity willed the death knell of a broken neck. The Devil was positioned to pluck the final chord. But Catherine had been severed from that world. The ritual had failed her. The masses, craving an impersonal thrill, would be satisfied. Murder’s a young man’s sport, her father had said.

Slowly, Catherine turned away, to her washing and her apron. She left the window open, but paid no attention to its news.

♦♦♦

Jasper sounded exasperated. ‘Why have you convened this meeting, Randall?’

          At the opposite end of the round table, Randall rose to his feet. He seemed to be shaking slightly, but he had enough of a grip on his composure to keep his expression stern. ‘Fellow heretics,’ he said. ‘A grievous act has been… thrust upon me. Another discovered our clan.’

          There were no gasps from the six other men seated around the table, but their eyes became those of reptiles.

Randall continued, but a small part of his nervousness had infiltrated his tongue. ‘Do not fear. He is no longer a threat. And for what occurred, I take full responsibility. We were exposed by negligence: a letter that you sent me, Christopher, I was slow to burn. A servant of mine chanced upon it; he threatened to blackmail me, and if I refused, to turn me over to the authorities. We were the only two people in the household. So I killed him. The poker made bloody work of the affair, but I am content that all incriminating stains have been scrubbed from existence. However, I have been unable to dispose of the body because of the day…’ Randall swallowed. ‘The daylight and the accompanying liveliness of the streets. It is unfortunate that tonight I have been requested at a party, one which it would be gravely suspicious if I did not attend. The body has been secreted in my cellar. Therefore, with my deepest regret, I humbly entreat one of you to take care of the matter.’ Randall hesitated, then seated himself. The focus of the room shifted from him, and his stifled sigh staggered past his lips like a tortured man escaping his prison.

          Jasper rose. ‘We will deal with this problem immediately. Our cult cannot be implicated in unlawful murder. We are the wind that steals the final breath, the

mystics who suffocate despair in rage, catalysts of the dormant poison which saturates everyone’s blood. The distance to our reward is unknowable. All we know is that it will come, and that we are made ecstatic in our labours to soothe us while we wait. But our magic cannot function without our guises. They are our most precious instrument.’

          Jasper turned to Corrigan, a pallid, gaunt individual. ‘Your next hanging is at mid-day tomorrow, isn’t it?’

          ‘That is correct.’

‘Then you shall be the one to deal with the matter. Not only will you have the most time, but of our houses, yours is the closest to Randall’s.’ Jasper’s eyes flitted in Randall’s direction, as if they were hot pokers meant to sear Randall with contempt. Randall visibly withered. Corrigan nodded his assent, and Randall handed him a key.

          Jasper said, ‘How do you think you will dispose of the body?’

          ‘The Thames.’

          Jasper considered the idea. ‘Yes. That seems suitable. Then we will reconvene tomorrow evening, to verify your success.’ He glanced at the filthy window, and the parasitic dust which clung to the glass. ‘The sun has surrendered to the army of stars, who are sheathed in darkness. You should go now.’

          Corrigan swept out of the room, fixated upon his detailed imagining of a severally punctured corpse.

The body had been evident the moment Corrigan opened the cellar door; the reek had stung his nose, as sharp and sudden as a wasp’s final aggression. Corrigan had ploughed forward, though, tricking his mind into savouring the stink. He had brought a sack with him, along with four bricks dropped inside. He had wrapped his bare hands around the corpse’s stiff flesh, occasionally brushed its icy fluids and yielding insides, and heaved the body into the sack. Then he had tied the neck of the sack, pulled it over his shoulder, and walked out into the balmy night.

          Now he was on the Thames bank, away from the hushed streets and comfortable families. The river was temperate, and the snaked scales of its rippling chest swayed in a warm slumber. Corrigan undid the sack, and wistfully stared at the rotting flesh that less than twenty-four hours ago had been a life. In his mind, he saw the corpse as something new: a nest for writhing maggots, its wet intestines tunnels between the shelters provided by its spacious organs, its soulless eyes eternally on guard to an attack. This is what Corrigan did, what the cult inculcated: the transformation of one thing into another, through the manipulation of the mind: Magic; and it could influence others too. Corrigan anticipated the coming hanging where, like a poet, he would create a spectacle that would shape reality.

          A cheery, lilting whistle shattered his reverie. Straining his limbs, Corrigan quickly dragged the sack behind a nearby shipping crate. The whistling grew louder; Corrigan peeped in its direction, and spied a pot-bellied officer sauntering toward the bank, veiled in spectral moonlight. Corrigan stilled his breathing. The officer stopped, gazed over the river. This situation persisted for half a minute. Time had been petrified by the moonlight. Then, like a statue awakened from the musings of millennia, the officer turned. He did not head for Corrigan, but his route would make him aware of Corrigan’s location. The sack, which had seemed a gift, now weighed as a burden. He needed to lighten the load. Despite the corpse, who slept upon the bricks as a man sleeps upon his sole possession, Corrigan snatched a brick out of the sack. If he rushed the officer…

          A dog barked on the other side of the road. Now Corrigan was the statue.

          ‘Cease that racket!’ the officer shouted.

          Impudently, the dog barked again.

          ‘I said cease that– oh, I’ll do it myself,’ the officer said. He stormed to the other side of the street.

          Even after the officer had left, Corrigan remained dumbstruck. Then, he placed the brick back in the sack and, checking his path before he went, hauled the body down to the river.

          At first, the sack seemed to float, as if passed on the hands of the sea. But the hands grew claws, and dragged the sack down, down, to be feasted upon by their sunken pets.

          As Corrigan walked home, free of incrimination and urging the sun to reach its zenith, he encountered the pot-bellied police officer. ‘Ev’ning, officer. Ah, the Thames has a stink even water won’t wash, don’t you agree? Perhaps you could distract your mind from this filth with the thought of witnessing tomorrow’s execution of justice.’

          The officer drew back, as if Corrigan were the source of the smell. ‘No thanks, sir. Not very agreeable to me.’

          Glee stretched Corrigan’s lips. ‘Oh well, never mind. There will always be another day.’ And he walked on to London’s heart, away from the officer, who felt relief at his departure.

Corrigan observed sensuous words float and twine around his mind, delivering him into a mystic trance. The wooden steps he ascended had been carved from great oaks, whose ringed trunks signified their pledge to be Time’s companion. Viperous thoughts slithered behind the crowd’s appearance, and with the rhythm of his words he would entice them to the fore. He stood before them, and with a raised open palm, oppressed their noise.

          ‘Citizens of London’, Corrigan announced. ‘Today, we bear witness to an act of absolute justice. The one punishment from which no criminal can sin again. Joseph Brooks, a sore upon our beautiful city, has been condemned of theft, irrevocably and irredeemably. He will be an example to all sinners, proof that the judge’s hammer is more swift and severe than any lie can defend against.’ The crowd seemed to press forward, their parched souls craning for the purity of his words.

         ‘Bring forth the prisoner,’ Corrigan said without turning. The sound of padding footsteps travelled up the stairs, which Corrigan interpreted as softly approaching war drums. The prisoner was positioned near the edge of the platform, ahead of Corrigan. Tendrils of fever probed the crowd, inflaming those most susceptible to their touch. What a wonderful prop, Corrigan thought, as he witnessed the prisoner’s effect.

          ‘This miscreant,’ Corrigan declaimed, ‘was charged with the robbery of the house of Judge Hathaway. ‘The People’ unanimously convicted him of this crime. Like a weed, he must be wrenched from his corporeal roots, so that this country, our country, may thrive.’

Some sections of the crowd roared assent. Those who didn’t, seethed. The tendrils had woven into a net of poison ivy, cast over the whole audience. Emotion ruled thought.

          Corrigan nodded to a man at his left. The black cap was carried to the centre of the platform, and the last vestiges of the prisoner’s humanity were swallowed in its maw. They jeered, the crowd in the square and those on the rooftops, screamed in rage. This is the power of death, Corrigan thought, to transform reason into chaos.

Corrigan admired the prisoner’s characterless body; it was clay from which anything could be shaped. But the gallows had its own rules, and time was running short.

          The prisoner was led to the noose. The tightly-wound hemp was a leash, slipped over the prisoner’s head to prevent him straying from his path. Waves of expectation rolled off the crowd, heralds of the tide to come. The noise was too great for Corrigan to speak. Instead, he stepped aside, and indicated the noose with the raised hand of an exhibitor. Then, at the same moment as Corrigan’s hand swept downwards as a magician’s does when he rips aside the curtain to reveal the disappearance behind, the panel collapsed.

          Snap!

          A tidal wave of vocalised exultation cleansed Corrigan’s mind. He had guided them to this point. Like a released man, he savoured it all. Meanwhile, the prisoner swayed pendular in the sunlight, timing the cheer that greeted his death.

♦♦♦

A man stood defeated on the gallows, in the countryside, with a rope looping over its frame and round his neck. A legion of royal guards, some cavalrymen, awaited the hanging. Two banners were held aloft. It was all in monochrome. I had tuned out the guide’s speech about James E. Taylor. It was the weekend, and my one chosen leisure activity brought my mind back to the job. Perfect.

          Everyone else in the tour group was fascinated by the painting. Everyone always seemed to have a fascination with the macabre. It was the only explanation for the unending series of headlines.

          The media’s coverage of the ‘Thames Murder’ had been sensational. The Daily Mail ran the headline, ‘NO-ONE IS SAFE’, for goodness’ sake. But that was to be expected. The worst of it was the oblique glamorisation of the killer. Phrases like, ‘continues to evade police’, really grate. They make the killer the hero, someone to root for, like a man on the run. Also, ‘continues’ makes the killer sound smarter than the police, as if he were toying with us. In reality, he’s probably holed up in some dive, biding his time till the media attention dies down. Why not, ‘police are still searching’? Whatever happened to good journalism?

          I’ve seen death, up close. Seen what it does. I sat there, while the mother of the victim wept, absolutely useless. And the whole time, all I could see was a school photo of her daughter, a picture of youth and innocence. There is nothing glamorous about murder; murder, and its wake, is cold, cruel, and hollow.

          There was a vibration in my pocket. I took out my phone, and detached myself from the tour group. It was a text message from Rose, giving me the date and time of our next counselling session: Tuesday, 12-1 p.m. Tomorrow was going to be a busy day.

I’ve been in this job twenty-seven years, and every time it astonishes me how wrong they manage to get it. It can’t be by accident. They must be trying.

          I held the press conference yesterday. I told them the facts: that we have every available resource working to find out who the killer is; that we cannot reveal suspects at this time; and that we are confident the killer will be caught. What do they print? That we do not have enough men assigned to the case; that our suspects are the result of desperation; and that you should make certain to lock your doors, because the police certainly won’t be able to protect you. And typically, I’m surprised.

But there is some news worth hearing. At 5:00am this morning, the phone yanked me out of my sleep. Kelly, a new P.C., rang to inform me that a vagrant had walked into the station, claiming he could provide a description of the killer. I was at the station by 5:40; the job’s trained me to be a light sleeper.

Sergeant Anderson conducted the interview with me. The vagrant was the embodiment of a stereotypical drifter. He even had a lone gold tooth to accentuate his crazed look. Beneath his fraying hair, his face was difficult to read; I guessed him to be in his mid-thirties.

          ‘You claim to have seen the killer as he dumped the bin bag containing his victim into the Thames. Is this true?’ Anderson asked.

          ‘Yes,’ the vagrant responded. His voice was coarse.

          ‘Can you please describe him?’

          ‘Sure. He was a tall, thin man, with blonde hair. It were curly, I think. He was dressed in a smart suit, wearing black gloves. I don’t know where he was from, but I reckon he was English.’ All the while an artist rendered a sketch from the description provided. ‘He had cufflinks, yeah, I’m pretty sure about that. Nice gold cufflinks in the shape of an elephant or summin’. I remember finking, ‘They’re –

          ‘Mr. Leonard,’ I interjected. ‘Did the man have a bright blue tie?’

          Mr. Leonard paused. ‘Yeah… yeah, I fink he did.’

          ‘And was his suit pin-striped, mostly dark green?’

          ‘Yeah,’ he said, as if I had some psychic ability. ‘It was.’

          ‘And the cufflinks, is it possible they were in fact whale-shaped?’

          Mr. Leonard looked puzzled, and glanced from side to side. ‘I…I…’

          I shot to my feet. ‘Interview terminated at 7:49 a.m.’ I switched off the tape. ‘Come on, Anderson, this guy doesn’t know anything.’ I could feel my fury bubbling over. When we were outside the interview room, me and Anderson didn’t discuss it. We both knew he’d only come for the reward.

Afterwards, I fumed in my office, pretending to myself that I would reread the case files. But I just couldn’t focus. We were getting nowhere. The press may have twisted my words, but they weren’t far from the truth: we didn’t have any worthwhile leads, and the case was becoming cold.

Eventually, after my anger had ebbed, I reasoned that I had to do what I was paid for, regardless of whether it was useful or not. So I put my head back into my work, desperate for that crucial clue I had doubtless missed.

          At 1:17 p.m., my mobile went off. When I read the caller I.D., I swore. I’d forgotten the counselling, and the building was on the other side of town. I rang Rose up and kept repeating that I was sorry. I blamed the stress of the job.

          ‘It’s always the job,’ she sneered. I could tell she’d been crying.

          ‘I know I know, and I’ll change, it’s just we had a lead, and I don’t know what happened, I’m really sorry, I -’

          She hung up. An hour later, after she’d had time to calm down, I called again. I repeated what I’d said in the first phone call, with as much emotion as possible. I told her I loved her. Reluctantly, she agreed to give the counselling another go.

          For a short time, I returned to rereading the case files, but it was obvious no revelation would come. At 4:53 p.m., long out of ideas or hope, I shut the folder, and headed to my one-room bed-sit, to a dinner of microwaved pasta and meatballs.

          The bed-sit depresses me profoundly. I can only bear to be there when I’m asleep. There’s nothing to do, and the air is thick with decay. Normally, I manage to get an early night, but my problems kept pressing on my mind. So I went for a walk in the crisp night air.

          At first, I wandered aimlessly round the block. Then, for some reason, I thought of the Thames bank. I went and sat on the pebbly shore, near to where the girl’s body had been discovered. A lot of things went through my mind. When did I start begging for counselling just to keep my marriage alive? Why was I so stupid that I forgot to do the one thing Rose asked of me? I’d been married to Rose for seventeen years, to the job for another decade. Which did I really love more?

          Then I thought about murder, how it wasn’t just a single act, but a disease with many symptoms. It tears through family and friends. It makes society fearful and suspicious. And throughout history, it had been a constant addiction. James E. Taylor dedicated ten months of his life to illustrating that gallows picture, and for what? Then there were all the Agatha Christie books, all the Hitchcock films, all the endless documentaries – everything seemed wrapped up in death. Murder was an artist, and he’d made himself acceptable through his creations. Society didn’t believe the world could exist without murder, and any attempt to single-handedly end it was futile. So what was the point?

          I thought about that for a long time, watching the Thames drift by, and gradually realised that for twenty-seven years I’d been the wrong type of police officer. Being a policeman wasn’t about justice or convictions; it was about lessening the suffering of others. Catching the killer was not the end; it was the means of making people feel secure, of showing that the good guy did come out on top; that

humanity couldn’t be stabbed, drowned, or pummelled into oblivion. An image of the girl’s mother lodged itself in my mind. My logic sounded insufficient, but felt solid enough to soothe me. Stretching my stiff muscles, I staggered to my feet.

          My eyes were tired and unsteady, but a smooth, oval pebble caught my eye. Vaguely, I decided to pick it up. The pebble felt hard and enduring, having survived through millennia; it was a symbol of humanity. Careful of the loose pebbles, I trod down to the water’s edge. The pebble’s invincibility seemed certain to me. As an act of faith, I drew back my arm, and whipped the pebble over the Thames’ dappled surface. The pebble skimmed across the water, leaping and falling, bouncing and toppling, a clumsy object caught in a majestic dance; then it made a clear plop, and sank toward the unknowable river bed, where, despite the continuous tide, I was confident it would persist.


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