by Vanessa Woolf-Hoyle
Francine marched past the grocers on Spa Road, past the station, toward the River Thames. Spring had arrived, but wasn't evident by looking around. A stiff breeze blew the scent of the ships towards her. Wheat for the mills, pickled herring, tea… and over it all, the smell of humanity. The dirty clattering stomach of the British Empire.
As she walked along Tooley Street, a man with skin much too pale smiled at her. “Hullo Sweetheart!” She lifted her head and walked faster.
Jane didn’t know her letters, but she’d given a perfect description of the place. ‘She’s behind a black basement door on ‘ibernia Wharf, a right low one. By the Jolly Caulkers, if you know it Mum. And she’ll ‘elp you out, don’t worry.’
She could hear men shouting. Carts stacked with barrels lumbered by and horses’ flanks steamed on either side of her. Beyond the bustle, signs of the most desperate poverty showed in curtainless windows, cracked walls, mouldy pumps, barefoot children.
Hibernia Wharf had the mucky salty smell of the Thames. A raggy old woman sat in the nearest doorway, her face grained with dust, her eyes blank. Filthy feet with black toenails stuck out from the bottom of her skirt.
Francine slowed her pace. Oh please, she thought, not her. Not this creature. Then, a few yards along, she saw it. Ancient steps led down to an archway so small that even a child would have needed to stoop.
In relief, she hurried past the woman. Taking a deep breath, she put one foot on the first step. Her clothes felt suddenly tight and heavy. Her scalp prickled under her new hat, an elegant blue feathered swoop.
She scurried down the last few steps and knocked on the door, which hung loose. A morbid smell wafted up to meet her. The door swung outwards, making her step back. Francine could see nothing behind it and thought for a moment that the draught had blown it open. Then she saw a flicker by the floor. A rat as big as a casserole dish gazed up at her from the flagstones.
A woman’s voice called out, “Please come down.”
As her eyes grew used to the dark, Francine saw a second staircase descending again. Her hackles clenched into gooseflesh. Only the thought of her sop of a husband made her carry on. Anything was better than living in that tomb he called Myrtle Villas.
As she proceeded downwards, she noticed a light ahead. She’d expected candles, or at best oil lamps. Certainly not gas like they had in Myrtle Villas. But rounding a corner, she came upon the chamber, mottled with pools of brightness—the work of electric bulbs.
“Do you like them?”
Francine shot a glance into the most shadowy corner of the room, which contained a chaise lounge, and lying on the chaise, a woman. “Oh I beg your pardon!” she exclaimed.
“I adore my lamps. They’re so wonderfully modern. Do you like modern things?” The woman got up. She was tall, and wore a flowing gown like an actress. She stepped into the light, which revealed plenty of naked shoulder and a long bohemian plait hanging down her back. She held out her gloveless hand to shake Francine’s, her skin as white as blancmange and as smooth as steel. Francine took her hand, noticing the fingers tipped with sharp nails like little claws.
What an extraordinary contrast, she thought. Such a filthy hole and yet such an elegant woman! What a fine rug—so very Nouveau! Surely this setting was deliberate: all this opulence intended to startle and disconcert. Frowning, she resolved not to part with a single farthing until AFTER the result...
Yes the result. She didn’t even know what result she wanted.
The woman squeezed her hand lightly. “I’m Cynthia.”
“I’m Mrs. Fallwell...” she paused. “I mean… you may call me Francine.”
“What beautiful gloves, Francine. May I see one?”
To Francine's astonishment, Cynthia pulled the fingers of her right glove free from Francine's hand. Cynthia’s skin brushed against hers and as it did, her whole body jolted, as if a strong magnetic force had passed over them both.
“Gracious they’re French! What beautiful leather. Who bought them for you?”
“Edwar— My husband.”
“I see.” Cynthia handed the glove back. “And what can I do for you, Mrs. Francine Fallwell?”
“I—well…” Inexplicable tears tickled the back of her nose. She frowned. “I don’t know.”
“Sit down.” Cynthia led her to the chaise and sat next to her. “How did you know to find me?”
Cynthia nodded and her eyes flashed like a mirror. They were more like the eyes of a cat than those of a woman. “But the problem,” she said. “What is the problem?”
Francine took a deep breath. “My husband. He’s weak.”
“It is the failing of men.”
“When I told him I didn’t love him, he started crying. Crying!”
“He’s unmanly. I should never have married him, but I was twenty six—all my friends were wed…”
In a sympathetic voice Cynthia murmured, “How easy and simple if he were to drown.”
Francine flinched. “No. That’s not fair. I just want my freedom again.”
“There’s divorce…” She crossed her long legs.
“He’d never agree. And then there’s the shame. I’m no scarlet woman.”
“But you would live alone? You have money?”
“Then all is well,” Cynthia soothed. “You deserve better, Francine. A woman of your character, your extraordinary boldness. You are bold, aren’t you?”
“So am I.” Cynthia gave her a sharp look. “I can see past that bourgeois hat, Francine. Take it off for me.”
“Because I want to see your hair. Is it as long as mine?” Her eyes flickered up and down, taking in the dress and shoes.
Francine took off the new hat and unpinned her hair. It felt exposed lying across her back. “What are you doing?” she whispered.
“I’m setting you free. There’s just one more thing. The child.”
Francine shook her head. “No. No children.”
Cynthia raised an eyebrow. “You shared a bed?”
“Sometimes. In a fashion.”
“Fashion enough.” She touched her belly. “Under those stays,” she said. “A baby.”
Francine’s mouth fell open. “But—”
“Even the weakest man can manage that.”
Francine stayed silent. There had been changes recently—discomfort, sickness… Yes. But surely she was not a mother? “I’m not ready!” she said. “I can’t. I won’t. Not with Edward.”
“Now, now.” Cynthia patted her belly again. “We will have your baby. She will be exquisite. Leave everything to me. You trust me?”
Francine paused. A rat screeched in the tunnels.
Cynthia laughed. “Or maybe not. But I can set you free. Come here.” She put an arm around Francine’s shoulders and pulled her close, leaning in for the first bite. Her breath smelled of rotten meat.
* * *
Myrtle Villas was bombed in 1943.
Francine Fallwell’s husband, Edward, died in 1950.
The docks have closed.
Hibernia Wharf was demolished... A very nice coffee shop stands in its place.
But there are still plenty of rats.
(Vanessa started writing short stories exactly a year ago, and since then has had a number published in such obscure but classy magazines as One Eye Grey, Smoke and Litro. She is fascinated by the history and folklore of Southwark. This particular story was inspired by stories told by Toshers (Victorian sewer scavengers around the Thames) about the Queen Rat—a rodent who could become a beautiful woman at will. She would choose a Tosher and spend the night with him. If she found his performance pleasing, she would grant him good luck in his hunting and protection from drowning.)
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