Issue #31, Honorable Mention #2

Raymie says, “I am in my second year of a part-time Creative Writing writing course, focusing on fiction. I particularly like using historical settings as the location for narratives. I have just starting submitting my work, so I have no past fiction credits.”

 

Wouldn’t Be Seen Dead in That

by Raymie Martin

 

I should have spent the extra, taken a single room. William halted, squinting at the two shapes on the bed, heard a woman’s low moan.

“I hope you paid for a quickie. Some of us want sleep,” he muttered into the gloom. Silence. Too busy. Let him finish. Retreating to the hallway, he debated whether to catch the last acts in the music hall or throw more dice, downstairs. Fumbling to close the door, shapes and colors from the tawdry room kaleidoscoped round his brain, causing him to pause. Something was amiss.

The room—copulating couple aside—was unchanged from when he had entered, bag in hand, late afternoon. There were three beds, a closet, a small ring-stained table with a bowl and cracked jug atop and an attempt at gentility with curtains and a looking-glass.

“First occupant today,” the landlord had announced, as if that made a difference to bed bugs and cockroaches. From habit William chose the bed furthest from the door. Opposite was the bed where the couple now lay. And if they’d pulled the bed curtain, I would go in and get some rest.

Some men might be unconcerned or relish a free peep show, but not William—five sisters leave their mark on a man. He’d seen prostitutes before—who hadn’t?—but in the ports he’d called home over the years, they were deep in alleys, skirts lifted in trade, eyes lowered in despair, their callers red-faced, grunting and fast. William was not immune, but he was more discerning.

What was it? The smell? Contrary to popular belief, he thought fresh air beneficial and had cracked open the window before leaving. Now, the room was thick with tobacco, sour whisky and tuppenny perfume. Forget it. He’d have one last bottle of Stout and then come back to sleep. His thoughts tumbled once more, pictures focussing and fading. With lightning clarity the image of the man’s face sharpened in William’s mind, propelling him back into the room. Candle aloft, he approached the bed. The light haloed a woman, wet-faced and whimpering on the bed. Alongside her, a man. Dead. He was dark-haired, but impossible to tell of what natural complexion as now his twisted features were livid red, blending into a purple-splotched bull-neck above a loose shirt collar. Mahogany eyes glared at the ceiling, as if affronted by the soot and tobacco stains, and ebony moustaches seemed ready to be twirled in front of an admiring feminine audience. But no female, however coarse or vulgar, would be captivated by the evil-smelling vomit that dribbled from his rictus grin, soaking the calico sheet.

“He’s dead.”

“I know ‘e’s dead. I know,” she moaned, spittle bubbling over her lip.

“By God, what did you do to him?”

“Didn’t do nothing.”

“Well, you’ve broken him alright.”

The woman tilted her head sideways a fraction to look, then rapidly back again to William. The forgiving flame softened her hair to sun-bleached oakum and her skin to iridescent pearl.

“It weren’t me. ‘E just started coughing an’ grabbing ‘is collar. I thought ‘e was choking, first. ‘E was sweating like a pig, and then suddenly ‘is face went all twitchy like and ‘is eyes went all peculiar and he rolled off me, rolled over, I mean, and then.. and then ‘e…”

“Hush yourself now. I can see well enough.”

She raised herself on one elbow, the man’s arm sliding off her.

“No, you don’t,” she keened, ‘‘’E was a gent. A real gent. A swell. I ‘ad such ‘igh ‘opes of ‘im. And now I’m gonna swing for ‘im.”

“Come on, sit up. Lying there blubbing won’t help.”

One day back and here he was in a backstreet lodging house with a dead man and a streetwalker. He took both her hands and hauled her into a sitting position, thankful that her shawl had fallen over the staring eyes of her companion but aware that she had more need of it than the man.

“Cover yourself, lass.” You’d make a fine figurehead, but a bit of whittling would be in order else the ship might keel over. “What’s your name?”

“Alice. Alice Waters.”

“Where have I seen you before, Alice?”

“The Railway, prob’ly. I’m barmaid there, one of ‘em, that is. I ain’t no dollymop.”

The Railway Hotel. Stepping down from the train at midday, he’d been drawn there by memories. It hadn’t altered. Nor had the faces—unlike his own. The ale was still watered and the air still dense: a permanent fug from fourteen-hour labourers and scented slumming dandies hemmed in by wood and cracked leather, blended with spilled beer and coal smoke; a faint high note of pleasure and an undertone of menace. One drink was enough before he left to seek lodgings. Ten minutes and several shillings later, he had a bed.

“You’ll have to get the peelers.”

“No! They’ll say I’ve killed ‘im, call me a murderess. I’ll swing for ‘im. You’ve got to help me. Please.”

“They won’t hang you.” If you’re lucky.

They might. Or worse. I’ll lose my job an’ be out on the streets proper. Can’t we do something… get rid… of ‘im?”

“We?”

“It’s your room too, ain’t it?”

Placing the candle on the table, William peered out the window. The boarding house was one of four houses in a row of back-to-backs. The only way out was through the front. Down the road to the right, The Railway Hotel. Behind it steam rose from the station as a night train eased in. To the left, came snatches of song from outside the music hall where a crowd of revellers was loath to leave.

“Too many people.” He looked back towards the Railway. A rat skittered across the moonlit cobbles pursued by a starving cat. A stone thrown, a yowl and it fled.

“Alice. Were you working tonight, too?”

She nodded.

“Who was there, in the bar? Old Cullen? Did you see Dr. Cullen?”

Alice gaped. “What’s the point of fetching ‘im. This geezer’s dead. Look at ‘im! ‘E don’t need no doctor.”

“Was Cullen there this evening? Think, Alice! Was he?”

Her eyes screwed up with the effort of thought. She nodded.

“Was he oiled?”

Another nod.

“Well oiled?”

“Well, ‘e were as tight as a boiled owl. The booze pushers were giving him any old rot towards the end of the night and ‘e pissed in the spittoon. Charlie saw him and bounced ‘im out.”

William gripped her shoulders making her flinch.

“Alice. Do you want to be found in bed with a corpse?” Her eyes slid from the body back to William. She shook her head. “Good. Because I don’t want to be found with one in the room, even if he did pay for his bed. We’re the ones they’ll blame. So, do as I say. Go home. Get yourself dressed—properly dressed. Go and rouse Dr. Cullen. Tell him a gentleman is taken ill. If you need help, take Charlie, if you trust him. No one else. Fetch Cullen. Cry, beg, but bring him here.” He shook her. “Do you understand?”

She nodded, rubbing the red marks where his fingers had been. Knotting the thin shawl tight around her, he pulled her out into the hall.

“No one else, remember?”

Hesitation gone, she hurried to the stairs where she turned to whisper, “God bless you. I won’t forget.” Whether she meant his instructions or something more, he didn’t know as he watched her disappear into the gloom.

Alone with the body, William laughed to himself. Done it again, William. A damsel in distress and you sail to the rescue. Too late now. But will it work? Maybe, with luck and a fair wind. Depends on Alice’s powers of persuasion, old Cullen’s capacity for drink. Is there any other way? Can’t think of one. Icy air slid past the papers stuffed in the cracked window, agitating the candle. Fascinated he watched shadows dance across the corpse like a macabre magic lantern show.

William had seen dead men before, and this man was dead: from the top of his macassar-oiled hair to the soles of his boots. Quality boots, Chelsea boots with soft brown uppers and scarcely worn soles. They had an elasticated side-piece to ease pulling them off, not that he’d used it. Trousers and combinations were gathered below his knees exposing legs that had scarce seen sun. His waistcoat was unbuttoned, his cotton shirt loose, exposing a greying undershirt.

Sighing, William creaked across the wooden boards, feeling the newspaper stuffed in his own boots, which had been re-nailed so many times they were almost iron. He needed to stage the scene before Alice returned. Unwrapping his woollen muffler from his neck, he threw it on the bed, shrugged off his jacket and held it at arm’s length. Charcoal coloured, it wasn’t too bad for a third- or fourth-hand jacket, it should last a few years. He’d bought the jacket and trousers a week earlier, from an undertaker in Portsmouth with a side-line stripping the bodies of their finest before the lid was banged shut. William grinned, thanking his lucky stars he was a man. Men were buried in their clothes whereas women were buried in their nightgown. He’d have liked a waistcoat, but that had already been sold, so he took care unbuttoning his own, already darned in many places, hanging it on a nail hammered in the closet. It dangled above two loosely buckled travelling cases, presumably belonging to the room’s other occupant. No time to investigate. He would look later for clues to the man’s identity. William doubted he had divulged his real name to Alice.

What else were you hiding from that brazen innocent? William eyed the man’s turquoise waistcoat, the maroon trousers in warm Tweed check, burgundy jacket and lilac cravat as he pulled at the Chelsea boots. You’re no swell. Gentleman, maybe, but with these clothes… a commercial travelling gentleman, I’d say. Proper gent? No. But I won’t spoil the poor girl’s dreams. God knows, she must need them. He pulled the clothes from the corpse and threw them in the closet.

The peacock now divested of its plumes, William felt a pang looking down at the man in grubby combination vest and pants. You’re all show, aren’t you? Swell outside; underneath, socks with holes in and darns in your combinations. Who are you? He was maybe ten years above William, of the same slight stature and hair colour. His was cut fashionably short whereas William’s was in need of a barber’s attention. William was clean-shaven, but the man had black curling moustaches.

Holding his breath, and turning his head to one side to avoid the vomit, William bent and hauled the corpse upright. It immediately slid sideways, staring accusingly. William left him there. Don’t look at me, pal. I’m just clearing up after your mess and the lass you dropped in it. The position looked natural. He just needed to position the whisky bottle. Pulling out the cork, he swigged—he’d earned it—then drizzled amber across the sheets and floor. Stepping closer to place the bottle near the man’s hand, he kicked the chamber pot. A bitter smell hit his nose as cold liquid hit his leg.

“Damn it!” He had nothing else in his bag, no clothes, no spare money. A draught stirred the candle and the corpse’s eyes glinted, enraging William. “Damn it to blazes! This is your fault. If you were alive…” But you’re not. His eyes swung to the closet.

“What difference? Pay an undertaker for corpse clothes or get my own? Cut out the middleman. A commercial traveller like you should appreciate that,” justified William, dragging off his stinking trousers and pulling open the closet.

The maroon trousers were warmer than his old thin ones and a better fit. Any guilty pleasure in his new apparel evaporated at the sight of his worn boots. A heartbeat’s pause, then he pulled them off, replacing them with Chelsea leather, swiftly followed by the cotton shirt, waistcoat, jacket and cyan cravat, before dropping his old clothes beside the chamber pot.

Hearing voices on the stairs, he left the candle casting its light over the corpse and hurried to sit on the farthest bed watching as Alice entered, followed by a swaying figure leaning on another man. Her jaw slackened. Tears flowed as she saw maroon trousers, turquoise waistcoat, burgundy jacket and lilac cravat: her lover returned.

“Doctor? Over there. I found him taken ill.” Not her lover’s voice. William shook his head at her before sinking into shadow. The tears ebbed. She pulled the doctor to the body, stood back biting her lip as his milky eyes swam over the cadaver.

He leaned forward, almost toppled, rocked back, sniffed, picked up one wrist then pressed his fingers to the side of the man’s throat.

“Engorged.” He gestured. Alice handed over a bag. The doctor pulled put out a stethoscope, muttering about decent citizens being disturbed unnecessarily.

“You could have roused me in the morning. He’s gone. Nothing I can do,” and dropping the tube back in the bag he pulled out paper and pen, eyeing William in the shadows.

“Name?”

“Archway. William Albert Archway.” William had added the middle name after the Prince Consort’s death. Three names gave gravitas.

The doctor scribbled on the pad, watched by Alice who slowly mouthed, “Para… parocks…”

“Paroxysm. He suffered a paroxysm caused by drinking to excess.” He flourished a signature, blew on the ink and handed the paper to her. “And then his heart gave out.”

“‘Is ‘eart killed im?”

“Indeed.” He paused, milky eyes sharpening. ‘Ergo, no coroner’s inquest. Give this to the registrar and funeral director. William Albert Archway, deceased 14th December 1870. Cause of death: paroxysm.” Alice opened her mouth. William made a rapid cutting gesture across his throat and she snapped it shut. “Certified by myself.” The doctor rummaged in his pocket for a dirty handkerchief, pressed it to his face. “Get him swiftly underground. Don’t want a miasma in the air or we’ll be joining him.” He staggered to the door. “Now, a drop of whisky before I take my leave…?”

“Yes, sir. At once, sir. Charlie’ll see you right.”

Alice hissed into Charlie’s ear, “Give the doctor anything ‘e wants. Let ‘im piss in the spittoon if ‘e wants. Dammit, let ‘im piss anywhere. Go on. Get.” Then over her shoulder to William, “Mek sure you turn the looking-glass to the wall, else ‘is spirit will be trapped in ‘ere.” She left, leaving the two Williams in the room.

He carried the candle to the speckled looking-glass, the reflection flickering as if he was disintegrating. Behind him, and in the mirror’s depths, dead mahogany eyes watched him. Cupping one hand over the flame, his image dimmed.

William Albert Archway is dead. I am dead.

He examined the candle smut on his fingers then smeared two thick black lines above his lip: one twirl towards his left cheek, one twirl towards the right cheek. I’m a bit of a swell now, he thought, curling pretend moustaches. I’m a gent. He saw the dead man’s reflection.

Opening his lips he breathed over the flame. It shivered then darkness swallowed them both. He turned the looking-glass to the wall.

William Albert Archway is dead.

Who am I?

Copyright 2018 by Raymie Martin