Gaslit

L0000881 Dudley St., Seven Dials

The chimes of the clock ring out over the fog. Shadows stretch from grey buildings over grey streets. The Thames winds under bridges and past docks, murky water seeping up the bank. The stink hangs over the city, a smell of people and industry and waste, a stench that worms its way into the bricks.

And in the dark, the gaslights shine pale, flickering yellow over harsh and unfeeling alleys.

In the night, the dead wait for their stories to be told.

They lie on tables, cold skin against cold cement, empty eyes staring. The scalpel glints in the pathologist’s hand. He watches their faces, his pale face solemn as a priest’s. Everyone else has gone home long ago and the morgue is empty. It is just him and the corpses.

They have told him to go home, to leave them to some student with clumsy hands and a laughing smile. He cannot. He cannot abandon them, not when he is all they have.

They are the unclaimed, the unloved, the alone. No family wants them; no friends know them. They are shunned and forgotten, even in death.

He is here for them at the end. He will show them the honour they deserve. Here, beneath his hands, is where their stories end.

The pathologist tells those stories as his surgeon’s hands minister to the dead.

~

The old man knew the sound of every coin. The ring of the pound, the clatter of the shilling, the patter of the penny. They were each as distinct to him as the calls of birds to an ornithologist.

His smiles were like lightning and his laughs like thunder. Even those who gave him nothing were treated to a wave of the hand and a call of “God bless you!” There was more of God’s love on his tongue than in the sermons of any priest. He had a leather Bible he held close, even though his white eyes could not see the words. His worn fingers danced over the ink and he smiled, feeling the love of one who would feed the hungry and heal the afflicted.

They came at him in the dark, not that it would have mattered. The knife slipped between his ribs three times, in and out. They kicked him after he fell, three pairs of shoving boots slamming into skin, muscle, kidneys, bones.

They plucked the sixpence piece from his cold fingers, the only money he had, and kicked him again out of spite.

The pathologist marks every bruise, every break, every wound. He marks the size of the boot, the style, the strength of the attacker, the shape of the knife, the angle of the stab wounds, every detail he can.

Deep down, he knows they won’t catch the killers. The police don’t have the manpower and they don’t have the motivation. One more dead tramp is no trouble to them.

But he marks it all down. He has to try or there’s no point to anything.

~

The boy was seventeen. The last weeks of his life were the best, bright lights in an endless night.

He was in love. Like he had found someone else to fall with, someone who he could hold tight. The man was older, married, two children, always sneaking away from his wife – but he was beautiful. Blond hair, pouting lips, sculpted cheekbones, bright blue eyes – an angel pulling him out of his hell.

There were quiet places they could meet, shadows and corners where there were no stares, no shouts, no judgments. They held each other in the darkness, avoiding the gaze of society, the batons of the police, the iron bonds of the law. They were criminals by their very existence.

No secret could hide forever.

His father said he didn’t mean to kill him. Just discipline. To fix him. Change him. Hammer him into shape like steel on an anvil, with fire and fists and fury.

~

The pathologist runs his fingers over the broken bones, the swollen purple and black bruises, the shattered ribs, the ruined eye.

There was nothing to be fixed, he thinks. He was beautiful as he was.

~

The woman watched as her cheeks grew hollow, her eyes hazy, as she needed more and more make-up to make herself presentable. Disease and hunger ravaged her like rats, eating her from the inside out.

Then she felt it, the stirring inside her. The first stretching of new life, like roots growing from an acorn. And she thought No, please, dear God, no.

It took them three days to find her body, washed up on the bank of the Thames, wet and bloodstained, victim of a back-alley butcher who had taken everything she had and promised to make her problem go away. She died in a morphine haze, unable to feel her lifeblood seeping away.

She was twenty-seven years old.

The policeman who found her body said, “Thank God, it’s only a whore.”

~

He looks at the ruin of her, what the pounding wheels of the city have turned her into, and wishes that he knew her name. He wishes that she had been given somewhere to turn, that there had been someone to protect her.

His scalpel slices, gentle as it can, cutting through skin with thin, red lines. He came too late to do anything more.

~

The girl had no mother and no father. She wandered the bitter streets alone, ragged dress caught in the night wind, and held out dirty hands for farthings, pennies, shillings. So few people spared her a look, let alone a coin. Hungry, she learnt another way, the way of darting hands and quick fingers. Pockets and purses she pilfered. To her no bread was too secure, no oranges too closely watched. Her dress sagged under the weight of old coins and the ache in her stomach was soothed by the scraps of food she salvaged.

One day, someone saw her. His lip twisted in fury and he shouted, racing after her, face red as blood. She ran, weaving her way through the crowd, leaping out into the road.

The cab driver didn’t have time to stop. The horse reared up, her eyes went wide, and heavy wheels crushed her bones. She lay there in the street like a broken bird trying to fly. Then she fell still, the weight of gravity too much for her.

~

The pathologist is gentle with the stiches as he repairs the incisions he has made. The needle dips in and out of her cold, pale flesh. His work is immaculate, his seems barely visible. He sews them back together, trying to make what was broken whole again.

He likes to think that if he’d seen her, he could have saved her, could have brought her to a safe place, made sure she was never in that road, never had to steal, never had to feel hungry.

But there are so many out there like her. Every day he sees them lying on his tables, beaten or starved or frozen, the broken cast-offs of a society that values profit over people, utility over the surplus population.

So many dead and all he can do is tell stories.

He lays down his tools. His work is done. More dead scientifically examined, their causes of death confirmed, the mortuary done with them.

He doesn’t know if the stories he tells capture the truth. He doesn’t know if they give the dead any more honour, any more love, any more hope of salvation. He doesn’t know if there is anything more for them than the cold and the darkness, doesn’t know if they were good or evil. He cannot see their souls. He cannot save them.

But he can tell their stories. He can treat them as people and not as things.

They are the forgotten, the discarded, the unloved. He is all they have left.

He turns back to the room as he leaves and looks at the faces lying on the slabs, human beings whose lives ended in in tragedy. Souls lost in the shadows of gas-lit streets and the cold of the London mist.

He says a soft, silent prayer, and turns off the gas as he leaves.

The lamp flickers, wavers, dies down to nothing.

And the bodies rest alone in the dark.

END


This story was originally available in Crooked Teeth’s second issue, “Fall of the City.” It was my first publication and I’m still very proud of it and of the remarkable, yet sadly short-lived, Crooked Teeth magazine, edited by my fellow LAS member, Jaden C. Kilmer. Save for a few typographical corrections, the piece is unaltered. 

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