Polly Nichols, a Whitechapel whore, was profoundly grateful to gin.
Gin helped her. It cured her. It took away her hunger and chased the chill from her joints. It stilled the aching in her rotten teeth and numbed the slicing pains she got every time she took a piss. It made her feel better than any man ever had. It calmed her. It soothed her.
Swaying drunkenly in the darkness of an alley, she raised a bottle to her lips and drained it. The alcohol burned like fire. She coughed, lost her grip on the bottle, and swore as it smashed.
In the distance, the clock at Christ Church struck two, its resonant chime muffled in the thickening fog. Polly dipped her hand into her coat pocket and felt for the coins there. Two hours ago, she’d been sitting in the kitchen of a doss-house on Thrawl Street, penniless. The landlord’s man had spotted her there, asked for his fourpence, and turned her out when she couldn’t supply it. She’d cursed and screamed at him, telling him to save her bed, he’d get his doss money, telling him she’d earned it and drunk it three times over that day.
“And I got it, too, you bastard,” she muttered. “Didn’t I say I would? Got yer poxy fourpence and a skinful to boot.”
She’d found her money and her gin in the trousers of a lone drunk wending his way down the Whitechapel Road. He’d needed a bit of coaxing. At forty-two, her face was no longer her fortune. She was missing two front teeth and her pug nose was thick and flattened across the bridge like a fighter’s, but her large bosom was still firm and a glimpse of it had decided him. She’d insisted on a swig of his gin first, knowing a mouthful would numb her throat, get up her nose, and block the beer and onions stink of him. As she drank, she’d unbuttoned her camisole, and while he was busy groping her, she’d slipped the bottle into her own pocket. He was clumsy and slow and she was glad when he finally pulled away and staggered off.
Christ, but there’s nothing like gin, she thought now, smiling at the memory of her good fortune. To feel the weight of a bottle in your hands, press your lips against the glass, and feel the blue ruin flowing down your throat, hot and harsh. Nothing like it at all. And close to full that bottle had been. No mean thru’penny swig. Her smile faded as she found herself craving more. She’d been drinking all day and knew the misery that awaited her when the booze wore off. The retching, the shaking, and, worst of all, the things she saw—black, scuttling things that gibbered and leered from the cracks in the walls of the doss-house.
Polly licked her right palm and smoothed her hair. Her hands went to her camisole; her fingers fumbled a knot into the dirty strings threaded through the top of it. She tugged her blouse together and buttoned it, then lurched out of the alley and down Bucks Row, singing to herself in a gravelly, gin-cracked voice:
“Oh, bad luck can’t be prevented,
Fortune, she smiles or she frowns,
’E’s best off that’s contented,
To mix, sir, the ups and the downs . . .”
At the corner of Bucks Row and Brady Street, she suddenly stopped. Her vision blurred. A buzzing noise, low and close like the wings of an insect, began in her head.
“I’ve the ’orrors of drink upon me,” she moaned. She held her hands up. They were trembling. She buttoned her coat up around her neck and began to walk faster, desperate for more gin. Her head lowered, she did not see the man standing a few feet ahead of her until she was nearly upon him. “Blimey!” she cried. “Where the ’ell did you come from?”
The man looked at her. “Will you?” he asked.
“No, guv’nor, I will not. I’m poorly just now. Good night.”
She started to move off, but he grabbed her arm. She turned on him, her free arm raised to strike him, when her eyes fell upon the shilling pinched between his thumb and forefinger.
“Well, that changes things, don’t it?” she said. His shilling plus the fourpence she already had would buy booze and a bed tonight, tomorrow, and the day after, too. As sick as she felt, she couldn’t turn it down.
Polly and her client walked back the way she’d come in silence, past tumble-down dwellings and tall brick warehouses. The man had a powerful stride and she found herself trotting to keep pace. Glancing at him, she saw he was expensively dressed. Probably had a nice watch on him. She’d certainly have a go at his pockets when the time was right. He stopped abruptly at the end of Bucks Row, by the entrance to a stable yard.
“Not ’ere,” she protested, wrinkling her nose. “By the metal works . . . a little ways down . . .”
“This’ll do,” he said, pushing her against two sheets of corrugated metal, secured by a chain and padlock, that served as the stable’s gate.
His face shone weirdly bright in the thickening darkness, its pallor broken by eyes that were cold and black. A wave of nausea gripped her as she looked into them. Oh, Jesus, she pleaded silently, don’t let me be sick. Not here. Not now. Not this close to a whole shilling. She forced herself to breathe deeply, willing the nausea to subside. As she did, she inhaled his scent—Macassar oil, sweat, and something else . . . what was it? Tea. Bloody tea, of all things.
“Let’s get on with it then,” she said. She lifted her skirts, fixing him with a look of weary expectation.
The man’s eyes were glittering darkly now, like shiny pools of black oil. “You filthy bitch,” he said.
“No dirty talk tonight, pet. I’m in a bit of an ’urry. Need some ’elp, do you?” She reached for him. He slapped her hand away.
“Did you really think you could hide from me?”
“Look ’ere, are you going to—” Polly began. She never finished. Without warning, the man grabbed her by the throat and slammed her into the gate.
“Leave off!” she cried, flailing at him. “Let me go!”
He tightened his grip. “You left us,” he said, his eyes bright with hatred. “Left us for the rats.”
“Please!” she rasped. “Please don’t ’urt me. I don’t know about any rats, I swear it . . . I . . .”
Polly never saw the knife coming. She had no time to scream as it plunged into her belly, biting and twisting. A soft gasp escaped her as he pulled it out. She stared at the blade, uncomprehending, her eyes wide, her mouth a great, round O. Slowly, delicately, she touched her fingers to the wound. They came away crimson.
She lifted her eyes to his, her voice rising in a wild, terrified keen, and looked into the face of madness. He raised his knife; it bit into her throat. Her knees buckled and all around her darkness descended, enveloping her, dragging her into a thick and strangling fog, a fog deeper than the river Thames and blacker than the London night that swirled down on her soul.
Copyright © 2002 by Jennifer Donnelly. All rights reserved.