It is an ashennight, cloaked in a heavy grey-black sky. The impenetrable darkness hangs overthe city, unbroken by the futile attempts of light from flickering gas lamps.The man blunders forward into the haze of his own spent breath. He is chilledby the frigid air and slips on dung-stained cobblestones. Muffled drunkenvoices nearby waver on the notes of a bawdy song – he finds himself hoping toGod that the slurred voices come no closer.
Madame Moore’shouse looms and he sees the feeble glow of candles illuminating the smuttywindowpanes. He quickens his step – this is an area where people sleep when thegin pulls them under, where people wake when their opium-drowsy babies starttheir infernal crying. He pays no attention to the frozen figures huddled indoorways.
He knows enough now to avoid them, lest they flee with what littlemoney he has and leave him facedown in the filthy gutter. The street is almostempty on this harsh November night – save for himself, just another lecherousman looking for a cheap girl. He isimmediately aware of the heady metallic pungency pervading the air, even withthe drink clouding his senses and numbing the pangs of hunger deep in his gut.The door swings shut and Madame Moore is nowhere to be seen.
Distantly, somefloors above him, a woman screams. Not the terror-filled scream of a prostitutethreatened by a violent customer – no, nothing as commonplace as that. Thescream speaks of darkness; it seems to envelop him and he cannot even begin tocomprehend the pain illustrated in that one animalistic utterance.
It is likethe scream of a hunted animal peppered with bullets – a cry for survival andyet tainted with the insidious seeping of death’s shadow. The woman’sterrible keening rings in his ears. “Out, out! Get out of ‘ere!” a prostitute shouts, descending like an angry angelof doom down the rotten wooden stairs. A sheen of sweat shines on herpaper-white face. A flurry of hands pushes him through the open door, his ginspilling from the bottle clutched in his coal-stained hand. Soon the settlingmist consumes him.
– It is a breechbirth, and so she is aware of the midwife’s loud ebullient encouragement untilthe very last moment of blissful ignorance. The midwife’s exclamations of”Nearly there! Do what I say – d’you hear me, miss?” can do nothing to settlethe pit of fear nestling inside her. Martha’s hand encloses her own in avice-like grip – in truth, childbirth frightens her. The attic bedroom repulsesher; it seems that she will be shut up for all eternity in this bleak prison ofpain. Like many common women, especiallyprostitutes, her name is Caroline. She is not the first of those in herprofession to be in her situation. Indeed, she definitely will not be the last. She had not thoughther blighted womb could even produce a child.
The tepid mixture of water, alumand sulphate of zinc had been the comforting routine employed since she wasfifteen. Night after night she had attempted to poison, suck out or otherwisedestroy what had been deposited in her. Evidently, it hadn’t worked; the childhad plagued her every day of her pregnancy. She became an empty shell of thewoman she knew before. Once she had occupied the house’s main bedroom -draughty and shabby, it was the place she had spent hours squinting at pennybooks in an attempt to learn how to read.
Dresses in number had once been hers,cut and sewed from dirt-cheap scraps from the Rookery. Books, jewellery,cosmetics, all hers! Saved from her constant earnings and stored safely away. Noone had skin quite as flawlessly pale as Caroline’s, nor hair quite as thick ordark. Not even Martha. Caroline’s hair,now brittle and dull, is spread over a damp pillow.
She draws a panting breathand knots her hands further into the blood stained sheets. The moisture-buckledwalls and sloping ceiling are closing in around her and trapping her. “Onemore, miss! Slowly!’ echoes slowly inher ears. Her vision is blurring with tears, the Martha’s concerned face looksas if it is splitting through the hazy glassiness. Her heartbeat pounds in herears and she can feel the throbbing of it on her neck. And now, clarity! A great bursting and tearing,the tears spill, one last sob of pain! Caroline lies gasping, unaware of thebreathless hush that has descended upon the room. Each breath that fills herlungs, every dangerously fast heartbeat, every blink of her eyes is evidencethat she has survived, that she has done it! And yetsomething is not right. The silence has not been broken, not yet.
No ear-splittingcry fills the room. Caroline struggles to sit up, her hands slip on the oilyheadboard, her feet scramble on the sheets, her back starts to slide down thesweaty pillowcase. Why hasn’t it cried?- It must be dead. The unspoken thought lingers in the room.
How could anything that looked like this be alive? She observes with a kind ofdetached calm the midwife’s blanched face – it had been rosy with exertion onlymoments before. Martha’s now limp grasp lets Caroline’s hand slip away, as ifthe deformities of her offspring could be contagious. They only stare, evenwhen the pitiable creature makes a feeble movement, as though they expect theirhorror to dissolve this harrowing abomination back into the nightmarish worldwhere it surely belonged. Its skull – forwho could distinguish the gender of the misshapen mass immediately, shocked asthey were? – lies half exposed beneath a thin yellow membrane grotesquelyriddled with bluish veins. Part of the upper lip stretches upwards, giving themouth an asymmetrical finish.
Curiously sentient eyes are barely visible in itsshadowed eye sockets, their unwavering gaze remaining fixed on only Caroline.The skin of its body is yellow underneath the cast of blood and vernix. Thebaby’s first cry breaks the spell; the last moment of peace is gone.
Marthadarts out of the room, the midwife swoops and cuts the cord with shakinghands. The rusty scissors rattle againsther ring. Caroline canfeel her grasp on light slipping, her eyelids grow heavier and it takes an insurmountableeffort to stop her from falling.
Through the slits of her eyes she can only seethe face of her mother – Madame Moore, of all people! – staringexpressionlessly at what her body, like some imperfectly working factorymachine, had thrown out. -Miraculously,she survives. She lives in a feverish delirium for three days, drugged in alaudanum-fuelled sleep.
The secret seems to fill the house to the very brim –they all know, of course, that a release would be fatal. It takes another threedays for her to stand. The crudely fashioned crate at the end of the bed mostlylies as silent as the grave. She finds that he – she discovered his gender, forno one else would touch him! – cries only when he is hungry.
He is sustained byonly bread dipped in water, for she cannot bring herself to take him to herbreast and watch the malformed mouth. She had no hopeof crossing New Oxford Street; the river too wide to swim between the opulenceof Bedford Square and the British Museum and the poverty of Church Lane, StGiles.