It is an ashen
night, cloaked in a heavy grey-black sky. The impenetrable darkness hangs over
the city, unbroken by the futile attempts of light from flickering gas lamps.
The man blunders forward into the haze of his own spent breath. He is chilled
by the frigid air and slips on dung-stained cobblestones. Muffled drunken
voices nearby waver on the notes of a bawdy song – he finds himself hoping to
God that the slurred voices come no closer.
house looms and he sees the feeble glow of candles illuminating the smutty
windowpanes. He quickens his step – this is an area where people sleep when the
gin pulls them under, where people wake when their opium-drowsy babies start
their infernal crying. He pays no attention to the frozen figures huddled in
doorways. He knows enough now to avoid them, lest they flee with what little
money he has and leave him facedown in the filthy gutter. The street is almost
empty on this harsh November night – save for himself, just another lecherous
man looking for a cheap girl.
immediately aware of the heady metallic pungency pervading the air, even with
the drink clouding his senses and numbing the pangs of hunger deep in his gut.
The door swings shut and Madame Moore is nowhere to be seen. Distantly, some
floors above him, a woman screams. Not the terror-filled scream of a prostitute
threatened by a violent customer – no, nothing as commonplace as that. The
scream speaks of darkness; it seems to envelop him and he cannot even begin to
comprehend the pain illustrated in that one animalistic utterance. It is like
the scream of a hunted animal peppered with bullets – a cry for survival and
yet tainted with the insidious seeping of death’s shadow.
terrible keening rings in his ears. “Out, out! Get out of ‘ere!” a prostitute shouts, descending like an angry angel
of doom down the rotten wooden stairs. A sheen of sweat shines on her
paper-white face. A flurry of hands pushes him through the open door, his gin
spilling from the bottle clutched in his coal-stained hand. Soon the settling
mist consumes him.
It is a breech
birth, and so she is aware of the midwife’s loud ebullient encouragement until
the very last moment of blissful ignorance. The midwife’s exclamations of
“Nearly there! Do what I say – d’you hear me, miss?” can do nothing to settle
the pit of fear nestling inside her. Martha’s hand encloses her own in a
vice-like grip – in truth, childbirth frightens her. The attic bedroom repulses
her; it seems that she will be shut up for all eternity in this bleak prison of
pain. Like many common women, especially
prostitutes, her name is Caroline. She is not the first of those in her
profession to be in her situation. Indeed, she definitely will not be the last.
She had not thought
her blighted womb could even produce a child. The tepid mixture of water, alum
and sulphate of zinc had been the comforting routine employed since she was
fifteen. Night after night she had attempted to poison, suck out or otherwise
destroy what had been deposited in her. Evidently, it hadn’t worked; the child
had plagued her every day of her pregnancy. She became an empty shell of the
woman she knew before. Once she had occupied the house’s main bedroom –
draughty and shabby, it was the place she had spent hours squinting at penny
books in an attempt to learn how to read. Dresses in number had once been hers,
cut and sewed from dirt-cheap scraps from the Rookery. Books, jewellery,
cosmetics, all hers! Saved from her constant earnings and stored safely away. No
one had skin quite as flawlessly pale as Caroline’s, nor hair quite as thick or
dark. Not even Martha.
now brittle and dull, is spread over a damp pillow. She draws a panting breath
and knots her hands further into the blood stained sheets. The moisture-buckled
walls and sloping ceiling are closing in around her and trapping her. “One
more, miss! Slowly!’ echoes slowly in
her ears. Her vision is blurring with tears, the Martha’s concerned face looks
as if it is splitting through the hazy glassiness. Her heartbeat pounds in her
ears and she can feel the throbbing of it on her neck. And now, clarity! A great bursting and tearing,
the tears spill, one last sob of pain! Caroline lies gasping, unaware of the
breathless hush that has descended upon the room. Each breath that fills her
lungs, every dangerously fast heartbeat, every blink of her eyes is evidence
that she has survived, that she has done it!
something is not right. The silence has not been broken, not yet. No ear-splitting
cry fills the room. Caroline struggles to sit up, her hands slip on the oily
headboard, her feet scramble on the sheets, her back starts to slide down the
sweaty pillowcase. Why hasn’t it cried?
It must be dead. The unspoken thought lingers in the room.
How could anything that looked like this be alive? She observes with a kind of
detached calm the midwife’s blanched face – it had been rosy with exertion only
moments before. Martha’s now limp grasp lets Caroline’s hand slip away, as if
the deformities of her offspring could be contagious. They only stare, even
when the pitiable creature makes a feeble movement, as though they expect their
horror to dissolve this harrowing abomination back into the nightmarish world
where it surely belonged.
Its skull – for
who could distinguish the gender of the misshapen mass immediately, shocked as
they were? – lies half exposed beneath a thin yellow membrane grotesquely
riddled with bluish veins. Part of the upper lip stretches upwards, giving the
mouth an asymmetrical finish. Curiously sentient eyes are barely visible in its
shadowed eye sockets, their unwavering gaze remaining fixed on only Caroline.
The skin of its body is yellow underneath the cast of blood and vernix. The
baby’s first cry breaks the spell; the last moment of peace is gone. Martha
darts out of the room, the midwife swoops and cuts the cord with shaking
hands. The rusty scissors rattle against
feel her grasp on light slipping, her eyelids grow heavier and it takes an insurmountable
effort to stop her from falling. Through the slits of her eyes she can only see
the face of her mother – Madame Moore, of all people! – staring
expressionlessly at what her body, like some imperfectly working factory
machine, had thrown out.
she survives. She lives in a feverish delirium for three days, drugged in a
laudanum-fuelled sleep. The secret seems to fill the house to the very brim –
they all know, of course, that a release would be fatal. It takes another three
days for her to stand. The crudely fashioned crate at the end of the bed mostly
lies as silent as the grave. She finds that he – she discovered his gender, for
no one else would touch him! – cries only when he is hungry. He is sustained by
only bread dipped in water, for she cannot bring herself to take him to her
breast and watch the malformed mouth.
She had no hope
of crossing New Oxford Street; the river too wide to swim between the opulence
of Bedford Square and the British Museum and the poverty of Church Lane, St