Over the last couple of weeks I have been sharing my abandoned children with you. Those novels I started but could not bring myself to finish, for whatever reason.
You’ve had Moonlight, my Victorian werewolf novel, and WT Stead and the Ripper, my Jack the Ripper novel (although, to be honest, it’s not really about Jack the Ripper) and I’ve had encouraging words about both. And demands that I pick up my pen (or computer keyboard, no wait, that doesn’t work, does it?) and finish both books off.
Which is very nice.
Anyway, before I do that, for the very final time (for the moment at least) I am going to parade one of my ill begotten, shunned children in front of all the world. Hopefully she will receive as lovely a reception as the other two.
Le Grandiose Michel Mysterieux is another of my Victorian set, supernatural tales. I only ever wrote the first chapter, which is down there below this rather lengthy introduction, but I worked on the characters and an outline. And for those Joe Coffin fans out there (yes, all two of you) Le Grandiose Michel Mysterieux is important because, whilst outlining this book, Stump and Corpse made their very first appearence.
They were both men, and they were grave robbers.
It was another seven years before those two surfaced from my unconscious mind, and became the Stump and Corpse we know and love in the Joe Coffin books.
You know what? I’ve waffled on long enough. Why don’t I just let you read the darn thing?
So here we are, Chapter One of Le Grandiose Michel Mysterieux.
Oh, some adult content by the way!
“But Tom, if you are going to write your novel about London life,” said Henri Ledentac, clouds of blue smoke billowing from his mouth and adding to the already malodorous atmosphere, “then surely you need to experience all the city has to offer, its underbelly as well as its refined mask of civilité, oui?”
“Yes, I suppose you are right,” Tom Nichols said, staring at the heaving mass of repellent bodies jostling past their corner table.
Ledentac had suggested their nocturnal visit to The Blue Dog, a mean, dilapidated public house occupying a cramped alleyway off the Ratcliffe Highway, earlier in the evening as a way of stimulating creative thought. Approached at night down a dimly lit street, one’s first sight of this most notorious of East End drinking dens is its tiny, cobwebbed windows. Resembling some ancient monster roused from a deep slumber its aged, yellow eyes glower fitfully from the darkness. A cracked, filthy sign hangs over the low doorway, its crude illustration of the mythical Greek beast Cerberus almost obliterated by the ravages of time. Only one of the dog’s three heads remains to scowl at any poor soul brave enough to walk beneath it and through the open doorway into an undoubted representation of hell.
Newcomers are met at the pubs’ threshold by suspicious glances and muttered oaths. Swarthy men in stained, dirty work clothes huddle a little closer together at their tables, and the painted prostitutes examine the outsiders for possible trade. The brown walls run with sweat and the mephitic atmosphere stings the lungs and the eyes. Warped beams run across the low ceiling, and behind the wainscoting and underneath the floors rats can be heard scuttling to and fro. A crabby, ancient fishwife sits by the blackened hearth, tending a miserable little fire. It is said she is the sister of the former landlord, who was deported to Australia after being convicted of murdering his wife. The man strangled the poor woman in her sleep and cut her body up in the bath. He placed her limbless and headless torso in a packing case in the bedroom, and her limbs in the cellar. The landlord’s sister opened the trunk and, discovering its gruesome contents, screamed loud and long, alerting the neighbourhood and the police to the murder. A search of the house by the police revealed its gruesome contents. No one ever found the head. Ask the old crone about the murder and she will open wide her stinking mouth, revealing her few remaining teeth sitting in her gums like blackened old tombstones, and cackle dementedly.
Tom and his good friend Ledentac sat in a corner of the smoky parlour at a small, rickety table, huddled over their pots of warm beer. Ledentac puffed languid clouds of smoke from his clay pipe, an ironic curl to his thin lips, and his heavy eyelids almost obscuring his dark pupils. “You must not be so timid, you have lived too long beneath the protective wings of your mother hen, non? It is time for you to spread your wings, to experience the world and all it has to offer you, and then you may write your novel, then you will write with passion and fire in your breast, with honesty and candour. Remember Tom, you are more than just a spectator in this world, you are a philosopher, an artist, and to make art you must immerse yourself in the object of your study.”
Tom took a sip of his warm beer, averting his face from Ledentac that he might not see the grimace of disgust he could not hide as the beer slid down his gullet and gathered in a heavy, sickening lump in his stomach.
“Look at these men and women, at their lives etched onto their faces. What stories they could tell, what tales of dangerous exploits and hard lives lived in the belly of this cité extraordinaire. I tell you my friend, your novel would write itself, you would need only to place pencil tip to paper for the inspiration to flow, for the words to tumble one over the other onto the page and become living, breathing things. You will be the literary sensation of London.”
“But for you it is so easy,” Tom said, glancing at his friend. “You have travelled already, you are comfortable with unfamiliar places and strange people. I, on the other hand…”
Ledentac waved a hand in a sign of languid dismissal. “Oui, this is true, yet you have only to prise open le coquille d’huître and partake of its delights and you will become a man. Be brave my friend, for the world has much to offer you, and you have much to tell the world.”
“But what do you suggest I do?” Tom said. He was a slim young man, his face long but handsome in an odd sort of way. His mother had told him he would be a pianist when he grew up, on account of his long fingers, but although he could play the piano passably well his passion lay only with the written word. Tom had arrived in London only a month ago, having been brought up in the quiet village of Wattleborough all his young life, and had no experience of the colourful city and its strange, exotic ways. The West End with its magnificent shops and gaudy advertisements, the streets blazing at night with gas lamps, and the hullabaloo of people of different nationalities, Jewish, Chinese Lascar, Indian, the Negroes, all bustling through the streets stinking one moment of effluence, the next of aromatic spices and cooking, all this intimidated him. Beside his world-weary friend, Tom looked gauche and uncomfortable.
Ledentac shrugged his shoulders, the corner of his mouth curling in an ironic smile, and said, “What must you do? You must follow your instinct. You must go with your heart, for every man has his own life to live, and it is not for any other to tell him what he must do, or how he must live it.”
Tom took another sip of the warm beer. His head had begun to spin, and yet he felt comfortable here in the presence of this unusual French man he hardly knew, in an East End pub drinking beer and surrounded by cutthroats and thieves, beggars and prostitutes. He ran his fingers through his dark hair and stretched his long, thin legs under the table.
He sat up straight again when he saw the woman with the white hair enter the public house. She wandered amongst The Blue Dog’s customers with a fluid grace, hardly seeming to touch the dirty, foul smelling bodies as she passed between them despite the crush of the crowd. Tom watched her entranced as she drew closer to the two young men. She wore a thin dress and a threadbare gown thrown over her shoulders. Her white hair, not grey but as white as pure, freshly fallen snow, framed her face and cascaded across her shoulders. She was young, and yet her hair gave her the disconcerting appearance of old age. But Tom could see the firm bust and the slim belly beneath her plain dress, her ample hips and her slender legs.
Ledentac noticed her too, and gripped Tom’s arm as he watched her pass.
“C’est une belle femme, oui?” he whispered, blue smoke dribbling from his lips. She was beautiful, yes, and yet Tom felt a stirring within him of deep offensiveness, as though the very essence of his being was repulsed in some indefinable way by this strikingly beautiful creature.
As he watched her open mouthed, hardly aware any more of his surroundings, the woman turned and fixed him in her gaze. Ledentac tightened his grip on Tom’s arm.
“Elle vous désire, mon ami. Le regard, ses yeux vous attirent, vous invitez à prendre de son corps.”
The woman turned and walked into the depths of the smoky parlour, disappearing between the costermongers, the sailors and the dockworkers. Tom stood up, his chair scraping along the floor strewn with hay. The beer and the gin he had consumed that evening took its toll on him, and he disregarded his natural caution and fear of the unknown. A small, still sober part of his mind remembered Dora, and protested weakly at this gross act of infidelity he was certain to commit. But the greater part of his consciousness, dull through excess of beer and noxious atmosphere, and hypnotised by that beautiful vision in white, smothered this small, feeble cry. Tom pushed through the crowd of drinkers, and behind him Ledentac slapped the table as he roared with laughter.
Tom quickened his pace, scared that he had lost her as soon as he had found her. Sweat sprung from his brow, and his clothes suddenly felt dirty and clammy. But deep in the pit of his stomach a fierce need clawed and pulled at him, a desire he had never felt before and consumed him above all else. He stumbled through a warped door and into a darkened passageway. At the end of the passage a solitary gas lamp illuminated a man pinning a woman against the damp brick wall, grunting with each animalistic thrust against her feeble frame. The woman whimpered, turning her head and looking at Tom. The young man ignored her. Before him an open door revealed a steep set of stone steps descending into darkness.
Standing at the top step he peered into the inky blackness, and held his breath. A flash of warm, yellow light rewarded his patience a moment later and, holding his hands out to run his fingertips along the damp, mildewed walls, he began his descent.
In the cellar he found a room. The girl with white hair crouched with her back facing him, the ridges of her spine clearly visible through the thin dress, and a soft glow haloed her body. She moved sideways and lit another candle, heedless of her visitor. Many candles decorated the small cellar, across the floor and over a brick built shelf, above which sat the open coal chute. The light grew in a soft intensity as more of the candles began burning, a flickering, shifting luminosity reminiscent of his dreams.
Tom remained standing at the bottom of the steps, watching this vision of disconcerting beauty as his desire grew. The candles gave off a scent, a mixture of exotic fragrances and spices. The scent seeped its way into his brain, lightening his body and his alcohol heavy limbs. Tom felt like he could float across the dank cellar to the white haired girl, his feet tripping across the lighted candles and barely disturbing the flames.
The girl turned and saw him. Her long hair fell across her face, her blue eyes gazing at him from behind tresses of pure white. She reached out a slender, pale arm and grasped his jacket, her fingers curling around the lapel, and drew him close. Behind her, in the flickering shadows cast by the smoking candles, Tom saw a dirty mattress lying on the floor. A cockroach scurried off the torn sheet and disappeared into a darkened corner. One of the candles burnt out with a sizzle.
The girl nuzzled her lips against his throat, one hand floating over the nape of his neck as her soft, warm breath goose bumped the flesh down his back. He felt her other hand running down his belly, over his shirt and down into his trousers. Her fingers found his erection, already wet with excitement. Moist lips found his, hot breath invading his mouth and her tongue darting across his, the taste of cinnamon and spices flooding his taste buds. He wrapped his arms around her, clutching her body tight, her small breasts pressing against his chest. As his desire drew to an uncontrollable climax she pulled away from the breathless young man and regarded him through hooded lids. In one smooth, swift movement she let her dress fall to the floor.
Tom drew in his breath, his chest contracting at the sight of her perfectly naked body. From her breasts and running down her flat belly and into the triangle of hair between her legs ran a series of symbols. Tom stepped closer and ran his trembling fingers over the unfamiliar shapes and letters. If this was an alphabet it came from no language he knew of, and the shapes bore no resemblance to natural geometry. Somehow their lines and curves, the corners and angles, obeyed an otherworldly rule, defying this world’s logic.
The girl had perfect skin, the pale, unmarked flesh of youth. She took Tom’s hand and ran it over her breasts and down the flat curve of her stomach. Taking him by the shoulders she lowered him onto the filthy mattress, pushing him down until he lay unresisting on his back. Hands tugged at his belt, pulling at his trousers until they were wrapped around his thighs. Slowly she mounted him, that white hair hanging over her bent head, obscuring her face. Tom began to pant, a pulse pounding in the back of his skull and threatening to give him a headache. The girl’s rhythmic movements grew in intensity and Tom reached up shaking hands to brush aside the curtain of white hair, that he could see the face of this vision.
For the first time he saw her eyes. She had the eyes of an old woman, grown old beyond all measure. An infinity of horror and grief lay behind those pupils, untold aeons of misery and pain.
Tom snapped his eyes shut, and clamped shut his jaws that he might not let free the scream building in his chest.