The Fate of Lambeth Polly

I am excited and thrilled to present this next piece as part of Waltoween! Nothing I can say by way of introduction will do it justice. If you’re not following Word Shamble, you’re missing out on some top-notch fiction. (Note: If you are viewing this post in the WP Reader, you may not be seeing the proper formatting. Please click through to the blog. Thanks!)

The Fate of Lambeth Polly

by Lynn Love

He steps back to survey his work.
The alleyway stinks of the Thames, of fish baskets, of ropes steeped in river water. Snatching the handkerchief from his neck, he cleans the filth from his hands, grinds clean the half-moons of his nails.
Time to leave. He almost drops the ruined kerchief, but instead screws the sodden cloth into his trouser pocket to dispose of later.
Now the thing’s done he feels calm. The buzzing in his head has eased, the swarm of bees that beats and hums and stings the inside of his skull gone, leaving him soft.

As he turns to go, his heel slips on the greased cobbles.

The pub was busy tonight, the raddled old tarts warming themselves before the fire like stray dogs. ‘Terrible nip in the air, Pol,’ they said, ‘not fit for a dead moggy’. They don’t say the real reason they stay together, avoid the alleys and steaming rookeries. No mention of the Lambeth Butcher, as if to say the words aloud will summon him up.
My feet ache as I leave work, left big toe pressing against the seam of my old boot. Time for a new pair, if I had the money.
I smell the meat market before I see the runnels of blood, slick black in the lamplight. I jump over a clotting stream, leaves and a half eaten rat caught in the flow. The stink of death should make me heave, but my empty stomach growls, working against itself.
In my room there’s bread, a piece of cheese wrapped in a square of muslin to keep the flies from laying their eggs. But I’m not heading home.

Hand in my purse, I feel three fat pennies.

He stands on the Embankment, looks across the blinking river, imagines the carrion in the water, thud-thudding against the wherries. He lifts a finger to his nose, inhales, licks the tip. Tastes metal.

Pie in one hand, half cup of cocoa in the other, I walk. The brew’s watered down and gritty, but it’s hot and feels good in my chill fist. I don’t have a hand free to lift my skirts as I turn down New Cut, so I skip over horse shit, the potholes filled with straw and stinking run off, risk losing some cocoa.
The Old Vic Theatre lamps are off and the place feels haunted, hollow in the darkness. But the rain’s pattering the roof like hail, so I hunker by a column, swig the last of my drink, eat the pie, all tough pastry and grey tubes that stretch when I pull one from my mouth, like chewing on something newly dead.
Is my Francis on his way? Boots shiny as a soldier’s, bowler tilted low?

I don’t like being alone.

Waterloo Bridge. Bridge of the dead. How many has he tossed into the water from here? It’s a simple thing once a body’s up on the balustrade – a brush of the hand and momentum does the rest. They drop like kittens in a sack, kick and beat against the tide, against the weight of their own clothes. But the chill Thames always wins.

Rain starts to fall.

The Blood-Tub, that’s what they call the Old Vic and the peeling advertisements show why. There’s a play about a man who shoots his sweetheart during a fight, buries her in a barn. In the print, her body’s scraped over with dirt, hand sticking from the ground like she’s trying to unbury herself. There’s red on her fingertips, blue for her dress, green for the barn, ink messy splashes like a young child’s painting.
The thought of that girl lying under the cold mud makes me shiver.

And all by the hands of a man who loved her.

Trains rattle-clunk-wheeze to a halt on the railway bridge, a surge of smoke, smuts in his eyes, pricking his lungs. Gaslights gutter above him, remind him of the hole in his head where the buzzing grows. He stops a moment, listens for the bees.
A woman emerges from the smoke. Skinny, shawl pulled tight round her shoulders, dress faded, hem splashed with filth from the road. As she draws close, he can smell meat on her, something sugary.

His mouth begins to water.

My heart jumps at the sound of footsteps. I imagine blood washing the streets black, the glint of a blade. My mouth seems stuffed with gristle and I see a dead girl, hands clawing aside the earth, pointing a bony finger at her killer. I’m shaking hard, my eyes fill with tears, my bladder aches and I’m choking and I can’t swallow and a man steps out of the smoke, arm outstretched, reaching, reaching…
‘Evening Polly.’
‘Francis.’
I’m so relieved, my knees sag, I reach for him to stop from falling. My face is wet and his arm folds round me and he smells of the city – of smoke and the river and tin – and laughter rumbles in his chest.
In a while I’ve stopped shaking and I say, ‘Got a hanky?’
His hand reaches to his pocket then stops, falls limp to his side. ‘I … Lost it,’ he says. ‘Come to my lodgings. I’ll build a fire.’
He takes my hand and I flood with warmth. Finally I’m safe.

22 thoughts on “The Fate of Lambeth Polly

  1. Pingback: The fate of Lambeth Polly on Waltbox – Word Shamble

  2. The scene-setting and imagery, and language all superb. Images of blackened blood running down the cobblestones, that dark mood of old English (London?) I picture so well—and tying the scent of tin from him (the killer) to her lover, that’s subtle but effective. Love the twist, of course: on very small level, favorite phrase in that three-part description of the train slowing. There’s something universal and cool, and strange, about trains slowing like that (‘rattle-clunk-wheeze’). Here’s to sense imagery, and such a marvelous tale Lynn! — Bill

    Liked by 2 people

      • Thanks Walt. I always wanted a Tardis – keep putting it on my Christmas list, but every year, Father Christmas brings me bubble bath … Thanks so much for sharing Polly’s story on Waltbox – and that of her gentleman friend, Samuel Clarke McCauley 🙂

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    • Thank you Bill, so very much! It is London, you’re quite right, round the East End and based on some characters that feature in the novel I’m currently writing. This is their back story, before the novel opens, so it was interesting to visit them early on, get a feel for their lives together.
      Thanks so much for reading and your kind comments 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

      • Wonderful back story and story about the story! I was over there myself on the east end this past January, nice to have that connection with your piece. That Waterloo station is pretty stark.

        Liked by 1 person

      • Just writing about a place called Tredegar Square – near where the short story is based – and it’s funny how the houses that are now worth a million quid or so, once housed umbrella makers and brushmakers. Lots of train stations in London are big, intimidating spaces – windy, filled with rude people and rush and noise. I guess they are the world over. Hope you enjoyed your East End adventures 🙂

        Liked by 1 person

      • Thank you so much, Walt. That means a lot. Well, the book is set in the present with Samuel and Polly having died 130 years ago. But both still play a huge part in the story – especially Samuel, better known as Mack. Just written a scene featuring Polly today, though she has yet to speak, bless her. But when she finally does, we’ll learn some important info about Mack. One day, it will be finished! 🙂

        Liked by 1 person

  3. Pingback: The Blood-Tub – Word Shamble

  4. I was so engaged and excited reading this. I felt like I was there, watching while eating popcorns and then the stench got to me so I dumped the popcorns in the blood stained floor.
    I felt like I was watching a scene from penny dreadful. I love the dark side of the Victorian. Well done. Can’t wait for the novel.

    Liked by 2 people

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